The Border Mail censured for describing man as ‘the homosexual’

Albury-Wodonga newspaper, The Border Mail, breached Press Council guidelines in describing a man as ‘the homosexual’ without his consent.

In a print article from June 13 this year headlined ‘Nude snap an agenda item’, and online as ‘Towong councillors to discuss mayor’s exposed bottom picture sent as Christmas greeting’, the story referenced a text message sent to the complainant, Stephen Caldwell, by the local Mayor, featuring an image of two naked men decorating a Christmas tree, with the message: “Here’s a new Christmas wish for you.”

The paper described the complainant as ‘the homosexual’ without his consent

The article reported the Shire Council Mayor would ‘formally address’ the incident at a meeting, and would write a formal apology.

However the story also noted the complainant would not accept the apology, saying: ‘The homosexual rejected (the Mayor’s) explanation that he had sent the text as a joke after receiving it from a female friend.’ There was a quote from the complainant, which said, “If (the Mayor) thinks it’s a laugh, what’s he laughing at, is he laughing at my sexuality?”

According to the ruling, the complainant had spoken with the journalist before the article was written, with the understanding the article would be about the Mayor’s misconduct and the Shire Council. However he said he never gave permission for the paper to talk about his sexuality, or describe him as ‘The homosexual’.

Caldwell said the article had caused him significant distress, including fear of being harmed, and that it had caused embarrassment to his family and harm to his reputation. He added that after suffering abuse as a result of the article, he closed his business.

But The Border Mail disputed the complaint, arguing it was important to include the description of Caldwell as ‘The homosexual’, as it was relevant context. It said it used words to clarify the quote in which the complainant pointed to his sexuality as a reason why the Mayor sent the image to him.

The paper also alleged the complainant had told the journalist he preferred being referred to as a ‘homosexual’ rather than ‘gay’, noting he never complained he was unhappy with the description.

But the press watchdog said while the complainant had told the publication about his sexuality, the paper had made a strong and unnecessary emphasis on it. It also decided the complainant had not consented to using the term ‘homosexual’.

“The Council considers that given the concerns expressed by the complainant about the Mayor possibly ridiculing his sexuality by sending the text message, the obligation to take reasonable steps to avoid causing distress or prejudice required the publication to ensure that the complainant agreed to his sexuality being explicitly referred to in the story, and being referred to in a way that gave such strong emphasis to it,” the ruling said.

The press watchdog upheld the complaint.


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