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Press Council rules The Australian breached woman’s privacy in Jamie Briggs story

The Australian Press Council has ruled that The Australian did not do enough to protect the identity of a woman at the centre of allegations surrounding the conduct of former Liberal MP Jamie Briggs, warning publishers needed to take more care to protect people’s privacy in the era of powerful search engines.

Australian Press Council logoIn an adjudication published by the News Corp national newspaper on Saturday, the Press Council ruled that while the reports surrounding the conduct of Briggs (then the minister for cities and the built environment) while on an official overseas trip to Hong Kong were in the public interest, the paper did not do enough to protect the identity of the woman.

Briggs later resigned from the ministry as a result of his conduct.

In the ruling the council noted that while a photo of the woman with Briggs had her face pixelated and her name was not published, “the article did go on to detail her exact age, specific position in DFAT, academic qualifications, that she was on her first posting overseas and the other meetings she attended in her official capacity on the day in question”.

The council said it had received a complaint about the article intruding on the woman’s privacy based on the information the Australian had published in print and online in The Weekend Australian on January 2-3, 2016.

The ruling was made under General Principle 5 of the Standards of Practice requiring publications to take reasonable steps to “avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest”.

The Australian defended the steps it took to protect the woman’s privacy, stating the it reported her age and other elements about her in a bid to “convey her relative inexperience, and so her greater vulnerability”.

However, the Press Council rejected the defence.

“The Council notes that reporting on the conduct of the Minister was in the public interest, involving a serious question of acceptable ministerial standards of behaviour. However, the identity of the woman was not a matter of public interest,” the council concluded in its report.

“The Council does not consider that sufficient reasonable steps were taken to protect the woman’s reasonable expectation of privacy in this instance, given the amount of identifying information supplied in the article.

“The Council considers that the information provided in the article would quickly narrow the field, allowing friends, professional colleagues or others to identify the woman. The conduct of the Minister – which it was in the public interest to report on – could have been reported without disclosure of so much personal information, such as the woman’s age, specific position, academic qualifications, that it was her first posting and her other appointments on the day.”

The council used to ruling to highlight that publishers needed to exercise care in protecting the anonymity of people and that such reporting could discourage people reporting inappropriate or unlawful conduct in the future.

“Where it once may have been sufficient simply to suppress a name or pixelate an image, greater care must now be taken in an era of powerful search engine capability,” it said.

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