Mr Harry Arnott (as President of the WA Police Union) complains about the headline to an article in ‘The West Australian’ on 30 October 2020 which reported on court proceedings against a police officer charged with murder.The officer is alleged to have fatally shot a Yamatji woman outside her home in Geraldton, and despite his plea of not guilty, the headline to the report read: “Four-week trial next year for killer cop”.

Mr Arnott contends that this labelling of the accused as a “killer cop” unfairly pre-judges the matter before the Court, and potentially prejudices and affects the fairness of the trial. He also points out that the matter is ‘highly sensitive’ and that it’s reporting ‘needs to be respectful to all involved’.

The question whether the headline has prejudged, prejudiced or affected the fairness of the trial is an issue solely for the Court to decide if the accused chooses to raise it. The IMC’s role in relation to the headline is simply to determine whether it breaches the Code of Conduct.

The relevant provisions of the Code are that a headline should fairly reflect the terms of an article, and that reports should be ‘honest, accurate, balanced and fair’. (This latter provision applies to the whole of a report including the headline).

On one view, the words “killer cop” (although provocative and pushing boundaries) fairly and accurately reflected the assertion in the article that the accused had “fatally shot” the deceased. This assertion in turn was an accurate report of a statement made in open court by the accused’s counsel.

An alternative view is that, in the current context of the Black Lives Matter movement and of other police killings such as that of George Floyd in the USA,the term “killer cop” carries a particularly negative imputation as to the accused’s character. Without the benefit of knowing all circumstances surrounding the present killing, the term “killer cop” will have an additional pejorative meaning beyond what was accurately reported in relation to the death of the woman. On this view the report would not have been fair, nor the headline an accurate reflection of the terms of the article.

Accordingly, the question is whether the words “killer cop” did not just describe the fatal event but also carried an additional implication as to the accused’s character. The answer to this question must turn on the objective test of how a reasonable reader would construe the headline.

We agree that the subject matter of the report was highly sensitive. Many readers will have had passionate views on this topic, and for some of them, the words “killer cop” would have been emotionally loaded. These readers would more readily have understood the words to mean that the accused’s behaviour fell into the same category as that of ‘killer cops’ in other notorious cases.

The most important factor to consider is that the accused is currently presumed to be innocent, and his plea of not guilty leaves open many possible defences such as self defence, accident or other circumstances which would relieve him of blame.

The only presently known fact is that he fatally shot the deceased, and in our view that is insufficient to justify the label of ‘killer cop’. We consider that a reasonable reader being aware of the reported circumstances of other egregious police killings would construe those words to mean that the accused’s alleged behaviour had been similar.

For these reasons we find that the headline did not fairly reflect the terms of the article, and was a breach of the Code.

Link to related article

Date: October 30 2020