Sunday Telegraph censured over Piers Akerman attack on Q&A audience member for ‘merely asking a question’

A column by News Corp’s Piers Akerman attacking a member of the public who asked a question on The ABC’s Q&A program was unfair and caused unnecessary distress, the Australian Press Council has ruled.

The woman who appeared on the current affairs show, Fred Thorpe, had asked panellist Attorney General George Brandis about her disability support pension being reviewed, in contrast to the ease with which politicians can claim expenses.

Thorpe was attacked by Akerman after her Q&A question

Afterwards Akerman, who was also a panelist on the program that night, wrote a column headlined “Sack ABC board and end the warped bias”.

He claimed that the ABC had been biased in allowing the “Labor-Greens supporter” to ask the question.

However, the APC has ruled that the bias came from Akerman.

His column made references to the complainant’s superannuation, her having been helped by TV show Backyard Blitz, her ‘aggressive’ campaign for a political candidate despite a disability, and argued she had “nothing to worry about.”

According to the APC investigation:

“The complainant said the article was misleading and unfair in a number of respects, intruded on her reasonable expectation of privacy, and caused her substantial distress. The complainant said it was misleading and unfair to refer to her as a “Labor-Greens supporter” who had “aggressively campaign[ed] for … James Mathison”. The complainant said she does not support any one party or person. Her Twitter profile, from which the publication apparently sourced its information, and which was since deactivated, reflected that she had previously voted for an Independent and a Liberal candidate. Her campaigning for James Mathison extended only to letter-boxing leaflets in a few streets with her children. The complainant also said she was not a member of the “uber-generous” superannuation fund to which the article referred, and her comments on the program did not concern the issue of “data-matching program” raised in the article. “

The APC continued: “The complainant said she had been humiliated by the article’s comments and that her name had been maligned and her honesty and integrity brought into question. The complainant said by simply asking a question of an elected representative, she did not make herself a public figure that enabled the publication to publicly ransack her life.

Akerman: After appearing on Q&A he wrote a column attacking the audience member

The Sunday Telegraph argued the piece did not say Thorpe was a member of any superannuation scheme, and said her political affiliations were in the public domain.

It said the comments relating to her appearance on Backyard Blitz helped the reader understand who she was, and noted the complainant had chosen to partake in a public debate, which was of public record and public interest.

The Press Council did not find the article in breach of Thorpe’s privacy, noting she appeared on the Q&A program and commented on her personal circumstances.

However, it ruled the publication had failed to ensure factual material was of balance, noting she was not a public figure, rather a member of the public, breaching the APC’s guidelines on accuracy and fairness.

It also concluded the publication had not taken reasonable steps to avoid substantial distress, breaching its guidelines on avoidance of harm.

The APC added: “The Council notes that the complainant merely asked a question, albeit on live television, and could not be reasonably described as either being a public figure or being involved in the broader debate about the government’s data-matching program. There was no public interest in scrutinising the complainant’s background to the extent the publication did, and there is a strong countervailing public interest in ensuring the public is free to participate in public debate without unwarranted scrutiny.”

The APC ruling contrasts with the infamous case of Duncan Storrar who found himself turned into a pubic figure after asking a question about the minimum wage on Q&A. On that occasion, the APC ruled that News Corp’s Herald-Sun  did not break its guidelines when its revealed his previous criminal record.

News Corp papers delved into Storrar’s past


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