A Columnist Encouraged Refugees To Self Harm And His Newspaper Defended It By Saying They Probably Don't Subscribe
Just 73 words long, the blog post breached four separate journalism standards.
A 73-word Daily Telegraph article that encouraged refugees and asylum seekers to self-harm breached four separate journalism standards, the Australian Press Council (APC) has ruled.
The blog post by columnist and blogger Tim Blair, published on May 31, 2019, was headlined "KEY WORD: 'ATTEMPTS'" and followed reports that men detained in Papua New Guinea were attempting suicide and self-harming following the re-election of Australia's conservative Coalition government earlier that month.
Blair described the suicide attempts by "our off-shore country-shopper community" as "plainly inept", and invited his readers to place bets on the "final number".
"Can they crack the half-century? Or even make it all the way to three figures? Go for it, boaties," he wrote. "(Note: under official Attention-Seeking Refugee rules, multiple attempts by an individual score only a single point.)"
At the time the column was written, some of the men had spent seven years in Papua New Guinea, where they were transferred after seeking asylum in Australia by boat. Their prospects of being resettled elsewhere were widely seen as dashed when the Coalition was re-elected.
The APC is a voluntary body comprised mostly of media organisations and journalists, which is responsible for upholding good standards of media practice. It found Blair's post violated the principle that publications should avoid causing substantial offence, distress or substantial risks to health, unless doing so is in the public interest. It also breached standards on covering suicide.
The Daily Telegraph said in its defence that the article was about self-harm and not suicide, that it was a commentary on how many people would make publicity-seeking self-harm attempts in order to create sympathy for their cause, and that it was a satirical opinion piece.
The Telegraph also argued that it was "extremely doubtful" that the post would cause direct risks to asylum seekers' health, given it was only open to subscribers, and that Manus Island and Nauru were not amongst its more popular subscription zones.
But the council ruled the phrase "Go for it, boaties" was "goading", that it was clearly about suicide, and that it was not enough simply to hide it behind a paywall.
Blair's "mocking tone...trivialise[d] the suicide attempts referred to in the article and was presented without sensitivity or moderation", the council concluded.
All up, the post violated three separate principles on the coverage of suicide, which require publications not to trivialise suicides, to take great care to avoid causing unnecessary harm or hurt to people who have attempted suicide, and to include helplines next to material dealing with suicide.
Data later released by the government showed that self-harm incidents spiked markedly in Papua New Guinea after the May election in Australia. There were more than 60 incidents of self-harm in Papua New Guinea in June 2019 and just under 60 in May. There were less than 10 in April.
If you or someone you know needs help, you can call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue Australia on 1300 22 4636.