The Spring edition of the Maribyrnong Messenger that included the disturbing phrase.

Benjamin Millar

Maribyrnong Council has been forced to issue a public apology after distributing a word puzzle embedded with a highly disturbing phrase to thousands of residents.

The spring edition of Maribyrnong Messenger, delivered to letterboxes across the municipality last week, included a ‘word search’ listing parks and open spaces in Maribyrnong.

But the puzzle also included the phrase “RAPE GIRLS”, an inclusion the council said was randomly inserted in error by a computer.

Council chief executive Stephen Wall said the council was “aghast” to have published and distributed the puzzle without picking up the offending phrase.

“Council is aghast that one of our publications should carry such a combination of words and was not picked up before going to print,” he said.

Mr Wall said the word search was computer generated from a free online educational resource and the “unacceptable combination of words” was produced as part of that process.

“We have filed an official complaint with the company that produces the online puzzles and will not be using the computer generating software again,” he said.

“We are taking this matter very seriously and acknowledge that this may have caused community members to feel distressed, and we want to assure the community that this was purely accidental.”

Mr Wall said the council has since replaced the online version of the puzzle and placed an apology on its website and via social media alerting residents.

Resident Carlie Park said she finds the council’s explanation difficult to believe given the astronomical odds of those letters being generated in that particular combination and the council has to ultimately accept responsibility.

“The community are questioning whether the error could possibly have been generated by a computer,” she said.

“If it was an error, they have not taken any responsibility for the human error component – blaming a computer program is shirking editorial responsibility. This content was both printed and posted online – multiple people were involved in that and missed it.”

Ms Park said she was also concerned the council’s public statement on the matter failed to acknowledge the potential impact of the material on members of the community, particularly during the Covid crisis when access to support services is limited and many people are struggling with their mental health.

“They have not put a content warning on their post about this matter.”

Ms Park wrote to the council asking it to undertake a thorough investigation into exactly what led to the content being published.

“Even if the offensive content was generated by a computer, there would have been multiple magazine staff members who formatted, edited, read and printed the content,” she wrote.

“Council staff need to take responsibility for their part in this and the harm caused.”