Back in 2001, British backpacker Peter Falconio was shot and murdered in Central Australia. His girlfriend, Joanne Lees, hid during the attack and escaped. A man named Bradley John Murdoch was convicted for Falconio’s death, but the body still hasn’t turned up.
Last year, Australia’s NT News published a front-page story claiming Falconio’s body had been “cut up and dumped.” The story included a photograph of Falconio and Lees. The news outlet’s story reported it received an anonymous letter with “compelling new claims” about where Falconio’s body was buried based on information from the convicted murderer’s “associate,” the Australian Press Council reported.
Falconio’s mother complained to the press council that the article was inaccurate and distressing, noting, as the press council explained, that there was no evidence the letter was legitimate. ” She said anyone can send a letter anonymously to newspapers about anything, fact or fiction, and given this and the distressing nature of the unsubstantiated content, the publication should have simply referred the letter to the police; it was not in the public interest to publish the anonymous letter,” the press council reported.
NT News editor Matt Williams declined to comment to iMediaEthics beyond the ruling.
NT News defended the story as in the public interest and newsworthy. Further, NT News said it showed the letter to the police, and the police said they were investigating the letter’s claims. In addition, NT News said it waited to publish its report until the police had a chance to tell Falconio’s family about the letter. That said, NT News did apologize to the family for distressing them.
Because the newspaper contacted the police and attempted to verify the letter’s legitimacy, the press council rejected Falconio’s mother’s complaint the story was inaccurate and not balanced. But, “the article’s prominent and graphic description of the alleged treatment of Mr Falconio’s body after his murder, especially in the headline,” was invasive and upsetting. “There is a public interest in reporting of the crime, however in this instance—particularly one concerning anonymous and unverified allegations—this did not justify such detailed and graphic description,” the press council ruled.
iMediaEthics has written to the Northern Territory police to ask the status of the investigation into the letter.