The Australian’s article on ‘violent Islam’ breached Standards of Practice, rules Press Council

The Australian breached the Press Council’s Standards of Practice when it referred to “violent Islam” in various headlines on an article which followed last year’s Bourke Street attack in Melbourne.

The story, published on 10 November 2018 and written by associate editor John Ferguson, was headlined “Violent Islam Strikes Bourke Street” on the front page of the newspaper, “Violent Islam hits at heart of Bourke St” when it was continued on page 6, and “Violent Islam terror attack strikes Melbourne’s Bourke St” online.

The online version of the article which breached two General Principles

The Press Council received multiple complaints about the article, and in response asked The Australian to comment on whether using the words “violent Islam” complied with the Standards of Practice. These standards require publications to “take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is presented with fairness and balance” and to “take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest”.

In bringing the complaints to The Australian’s attention, the Press Council noted that using “violent” to describe the religion of Islam may imply that Islam broadly is responsible for the actions of a minority.

In response, The Australian said this was not the case – these words were not intended to imply that the entire religion was “violent”. Instead, the newspaper was referring to “a violent arm of an otherwise peaceful religion”. The word “violent” was used as a qualifier, the newspaper claimed, to, in fact, clarify that Islam generally was not responsible for the Bourke Street attack.

The Press Council acknowledged that the headline could be read in such a way but ultimately disagreed with The Australian’s argument.

“Readers could also infer from the headline that ‘violent’ is being used a descriptor for Islam generally and as such, the headline may give an impression that the religion of Islam as a whole is responsible for the Bourke Street attack,” its decision read.

Accordingly, the Council ruled that the article breached two general principles of its Standards of Practice. The Australian did not make it clear enough that the word “violent” referred to the attacker and not the religion, and did not take reasonable steps to present the facts in the headline with fairness and balance. The paper also did not take reasonable steps to avoid contributing to prejudice towards the Islamic community, which was not justified by the public interest, the Press Council said.

The decision did not specify what The Australian must do to remedy the breaches, although the publication did publish the adjudication both in print and on its site.


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