The Press Council considered a complaint from Emma Little, on behalf of King Island Council, about an article published in the King Island Courier on 26 September 2018, headed “Directive denied by Auditor General”, about the use made by the publication of an email from the complainant to the publication printed on the same page.
The article reported that, in increasing the airport charges of the only airport on King Island, the King Island Council had publicly claimed it was following a directive from the Auditor General to get “the facility to break even and beyond”. However, the Auditor General had denied issuing such a directive. The article concluded: “the King Island Council did not respond to a request for comment.”
Ms Little’s email to the publication advised that the King Island Council was withdrawing its advertising from the publication due to “[unacceptable]…continued degradation of the organisation, its staff and Councillors”. The email was published on the same page as the article complained of, and in place of the Council’s regular half page booked piece.
Ms Little said that she received an email from the publication at 11:27am inviting Council’s comment on the Auditor General’s directive, with a specified deadline of 12:00pm. She noted that the publication made no effort to obtain comment via telephone or otherwise. The complainant further said she provided a response at her first opportunity at 4:37pm citing amongst the information supplied, recommendations from the Council’s own external Audit Panel and the Tasmanian Audit Office. She also advised the publication that a 33-minute timeframe to respond was unrealistic.
The complainant said that the statement in the article that “The King Island Council did not respond to a request for comment’” was inaccurate given that the Council had provided a response at 4:37pm.
The complainant said that her email was intended as private correspondence and was not authorised for print. The complainant also said that displaying the email in the style of an advertisement without any editorial context or explanation was deceptive.
In response, the publication said that while the email requesting comment was written at 8:30am, it experienced internet difficulties that caused emails to be delayed. The publication said that given this delay, it immediately put printing on hold when it received the complainant’s email, to be able to include King Island Council’s response.
The publication said that in the information supplied in King Island Council’s response, there was no comment from the King Island Council on the question of whether the Auditor General issued a “directive”. Instead the response referred to King Island Council’s Audit Panel, which is a different entity. The publication’s email specifically stated: “The Auditor General confirmed that neither he nor his office have ever issued any such directive”, and asked King Island Council to “explain why [it applied] a directive that does not exist...”
The publication added that at 4:44pm it responded by email to Ms Little inviting her to confirm there was no directive from the Auditor General, and held printing back for another hour. The publication said that it did not receive a response to its second request, and therefore stated in the article that the “…Council did not respond to a request for comment”.
The publication said that the email withdrawing its weekly booked half page piece was received just two hours before deadline. The publication noted that this left the publication with empty space, and with no explanation for the residents and ratepayers who looked to the piece as a source of information from the local government.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure published material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and is presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or not reasonably fair and balanced, the publication must provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4). The Standards of Practice also require publications to take reasonable steps to avoid publishing material gathered by unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 7).
The Press Council accepts that the complainant’s response to the publication’s request for comment did not directly address the central question of why King Island Council had invoked a directive, which the Auditor General denied issuing. However, the Press Council considers that a response that is thought by the publication to be irrelevant or otherwise inadequate, can constitute a response. The statement “The King Island Council did not respond to a request for comment” was inaccurate, misleading and unfair since a response was in fact provided, whether or not the content was persuasive. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure its reporting was accurate and fair in breach of General Principles 1 and 3 and did not provide a correction in breach of General Principle 2.
The Press Council considers that although the publication followed up in an email, it did not provide an adequate opportunity for subsequent publication of a reply. The Press Council had regard to both the timing of the email, its proximity to the printing deadline, as well as the content which briefly repeated the first query and did not meaningfully ask for clarification. Accordingly, the Press Council concluded that General Principle 4 was breached in this respect.
The Press Council considers that publishing the complainant’s email was in the public interest. Withdrawing advertising from the publication was a significant step which would not only cause a significant loss of revenue to the newspaper, but also affect the local community. Withdrawing this established means of communication affects the manner in which the community becomes aware of local council matters. Given the size of the publication and short notice provided, it was reasonable for the publication to use the space reserved to inform the community of this development. However, the Press Council notes that it would have been more appropriate to include the correspondence by way of an article to provide context. The Press Council concludes that the publication did not breach General Principle 7.
Relevant Press Council Standards (not required for publication)
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.
7. Avoid publishing material which has been gathered by deceptive or unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.