Sunday Age reprimanded for refusing to correct story of suspect’s strip search

The Sunday Age has been censured by the Australian Press Council over its publication of an author’s account of being strip searched by police.

The first person article by author Barry Dickins, a regular contributor to the newspaper, was headlined “Strip-searched in Carlton on a sunny afternoon”.

Dickins claimed in the October 2015 article that he had been stopped by police on suspicion of shoplifting a T-shirt and ordered to drop his pants in public view, to prove he was not hiding anything.

Cartoon published with the article

But after Dickins made an official complaint about the incident, an investigation by the Victoria Police Professional Standards Command found that the claims were false. However, the newspaper declined to publish a correction.

Dickins was then prosecuted for making a false report and found guilty in March this year after the magistrate viewed CCTV video which backed the police case. But the newspaper again refused to publish a correction, which led to Victoria Police complaining to the Press Council.

According to the APC adjudication: “The publication said upon receiving the complainant’s concerns about the article, it immediately removed the online version. The publication said it did not issue a correction or apology as it had observed discrepancies in the complainant’s version of events as against CCTV footage of the incident. The publication said it accepted the writer had been found guilty of making a false report to police, but maintained its belief that an inappropriate search had been conducted by the police officers, albeit not as described in the article. The publication said it was not willing to print a correction in the absence of conclusive evidence supporting the complainant’s version of events and it had instead suggested the matter be referred for investigation by an independent ombudsman.

The newspaper argued that because it had reported Dickins’ conviction, this was enough to correct the record.

But the APC ruled: “The Council considers that the serious nature of the article’s allegations required the publication to take more steps than it took before publication to verify the writer’s account, such as contacting the complainant for corroboration or comment. The Council does not consider the publication’s reliance on its relationship with the writer and his filing of a formal complaint to the police amounted to reasonable steps to ensure the article’s account of events was accurate and not misleading.

And the press watchdog added: “The publication eventually accepted the article was inaccurate but, due to its reservations about the complainant’s version of events, did not at any stage make an apology or correction. The Council considers that, notwithstanding the publication’s reservations about the events of the day, sufficient evidence was provided to the publication prior to the Court hearing to demonstrate the article was significantly inaccurate and misleading on a number of key points, including statements that the police officer directed the writer to take down his pants and underpants and photographed his pubic hair.”


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