The Press Council considered a complaint by Judith Kenny about an article concerning the killing of her son Reuben Stack on 21 May 2015. The article was published in the Fremantle Herald in print and online on 29-30 May 2015, headed “Brutal killing shocks leafy East Fremantle”.
The article reported the nature and circumstances of Mr Stack’s killing, possible motives for his apparent murder, and local speculation about it. The article said “early reports to Sky News and other electronic media within a few days of the death speculated on an ‘execution style’ killing, with Mr Stack said to have suffered serious stab wounds and a bullet to his head”. It said “[e]merging though is a picture of a ‘troubled’ young man who may have got in too deep in an increasingly violent and unpredictable drug scene which, for him, spun wildly out of control”, and “there has been added speculation as to whether a dog-fight for control of the local drug scene may have played a part”.
The complainant said the article was based on unsubstantiated rumour and speculation. It inaccurately reported that her son had died in an “execution-style” killing when in fact it had occurred in the midst of a robbery, when the murderer was surprised to find him at home. The killing did not occur by the methods referred to in the article. The complainant said while the circumstances suggest her son had foolishly been involved in some drug activity, the speculation about a “dog-fight for control of the local drug scene” was baseless. She also said her son was happy, sociable, friendly and kind and his description as “a ‘troubled’ young man” was inaccurate. She said the publication had no credible information about these matters and had not attempted to substantiate any of these assertions with her family or the police. She said the only police statement about the death was a short press release, approximately three weeks after the death, reporting that a person had been charged with murder and making no reference to motive or any such “drug scene”.
The complainant said the article was proven to be inaccurate in significant respects by the facts found in the Supreme Court of Western Australia’s sentencing judgment for Mr Stack’s murderer in July 2016.
The complainant said the article, appearing so soon after her son’s death, unreasonably intruded on her and her family’s privacy and grief, and caused them immense distress, which was not justified in the public interest.
The publication said the article was a sympathetic account of a tragic death and that it had taken reasonable steps to ensure the article was accurate, fair and balanced. The publication said the article was well-informed and based on comments provided by many trusted and reliable people acquainted with the family and the wider community, including some close to the crime scene on the night of the killing. Information about the nature of the assault came from a variety of sources, including attendant emergency services. The “execution-style” killing reference came from Sky News and other “electronic media” immediately after the murder and was not denied by police after the publication had spoken with them twice. It said a number of people had come forward verifying the story before and after publication and, as the article stated, these sources did not wish to go on the record. It said that police had advised that Mr Stack’s injuries were “very severe” and were hallmarks of a drug-related killing, and an investigator in the case indicated that WA Police were investigating “numerous tips about the theft of cash from a safe”. The publication said it also had other information from a drug user that someone had moved into the area and wanted to set up “four new drug houses”.
The publication said the sentencing judgment of the WA Supreme Court was very much a validation of the accuracy and fairness of the article. It said the judgment established that Mr Stack was a substantial dealer of drugs and had a thriving business, and the murder occurred during the course of a robbery of a very substantial amount of drugs from his home. Although the method of killing was different than what was reported, the publication said it had taken reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of what it published at the time and it was not unreasonable for it to report the electronic media speculation about the details of the killing. The publication said the article’s statement that Mr Stack was “troubled” was strongly based on local sources and supported by the Supreme Court’s finding about the extent of his drug activities. With regard to any distress caused to the family, the publication said the article was as sympathetic to Mr Stack as it could be, and the publication had a responsibility in the public interest to report the detail of the circumstances as it had drawn them from reliable sources. The publication noted it had also provided the opportunity for readers to air their views on the matter, and it had published several letters critical of the article.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or not reasonably fair or balanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4). The Standards also require that publications take reasonable steps to avoid intruding on a person’s reasonable expectations of privacy and avoid contributing to substantial offence or distress – unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principles 5 and 6).
Having regard to the sentencing judgment, the Council considers that the article was inaccurate in implying the details of the killing and that a “dog fight for control of the local drug scene” was involved. The publication did not seek any balancing comments by the family or the police, which could have either supported or qualified the claims made. While there may have been some justification in reporting about such electronic media speculation in the first hours after the crime, the intervening eight days gave the publication sufficient time to check whether the speculation was accurate. In repeating the speculation in electronic media about the method of killing and speculation from un-named sources about a “dog fight” eight days after the event, the Council concludes the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld. Given Mr Stack’s drug activities, the Council does not uphold the complaint in relation to Mr Stack being described as “troubled”.
The Council also considers that in not taking reasonable steps to ensure accuracy in implying details of the killing and a “dog fight for control of the local drug scene”, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid contributing materially to substantial distress for the family. Given the article appeared soon after the violent death of a young man from a prominent family in the local community, there was a public interest justifying a report on the events, however that public interest did not justify the manner of reporting in this case and the distress caused to the family. As such, the Council concludes that the article breached General Principle 6, and this aspect of the complaint is also upheld.
The Council notes that Ms Kenny did not ask the publication for a correction, right of reply or other remedial action. Having regard to the circumstances, including the nature of the material published, the Council does not reach any conclusion about whether General Principles 2 and 4 were breached.
The Council considers it legitimate for the article to report on a homicide in the community and the coverage was sufficiently in the public interest to outweigh any reasonable expectation of privacy that may have existed under General Principle 5. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is not upheld.