The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint by a lobby group, Save Albert Park, against four articles in the Melbourne Herald Sun on 25 and 29 January and 3 March 2011, and in the Sunday Herald Sun on 30 January, relating to the Australian Formula One Grand Prix.
The complaint related principally to quotes in those articles from Ron Walker, the Chair of the Grand Prix, in which he gave specific figures for the financial benefits of the Grand Prix to the Victorian economy. It also concerned the mention of a specific figure for attendance at the previous Grand Prix.
Save Albert Park complained that each of these figures had been exposed previously as being inaccurate by, in particular, a report by the Victorian Auditor General and by data that the group itself had provided. The group said the newspaper had not made reasonable attempts to check the accuracy of Mr Walker’s statements and had neither provided different views nor indicated that his figures were highly disputed. It also said that the newspaper should have disclosed that it had a large number of tie-in promotions and sponsorship of the Grand Prix.
The newspaper responded that the disputed claims were quotes from a named source rather than statements by the newspaper itself and they were not known by it to be false. It said that the articles included claims by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne about the likely cost of the Grand Prix to the Victorian Government and reported previous losses incurred by the Grand Prix organisers. It said it had previously reported the Auditor-General’s findings and other criticisms, including its own, of aspects of the Grand Prix administration. It said that its financial relationship with the Grand Prix consisted solely of an advertising contract but agreed that a parent company (the Herald and Weekly Times) also owned the company that printed the Grand Prix programs.
The Council has concluded that, as the statements relating to financial benefits were all attributed to Mr Walker, there was no obligation on the newspaper to determine whether they were accurate. The newspaper was aware that Mr Walker’s statements about benefits and attendances had been strongly contested in detailed analyses from other sources. The Council considers that, although the newspaper had previously reported these and related concerns, the articles complained about should have provided better balance by at least indicating that the comments were disputed claims. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
The Council considers that the need for the newspaper to make this clarification was accentuated by the close link with promotion of the Grand Prix but was not dependent on that link. The Council notes, however, that the newspaper had previously published a number of articles that prominently and forthrightly questioned aspects of the administration, success and future of the Grand Prix.
Supplementary note (Not required to be published by the newspaper):
In one specific instance, it was not entirely clear whether a sentence relating to attendance figures was a paraphrase of Mr Walker's comments or an assertion by the newspaper. It was not so clearly the latter as to place the newspaper under an obligation to test its accuracy.