The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint by Senator Bob Brown about the refusal of The Examiner, Launceston, to publish his letter responding to a letter in its 29 September 2011 edition.
The initial letter, from the Ta Ann Group, commented on an advertisement entitled “Tasmania’s loggers from Sarawak: The Truth about Ta Ann” which was authorised by Sen. Brown and published by the newspaper on 24 September. It said the photographs in the advertisement were misleading in several respects including that the logging truck was not a Ta Ann truck, the area was not a Ta Ann logging area, and the main photograph had been “flipped horizontally”. It said the advertisement “appears to be a case of the wrong words, wrong photos, wrong location, wrong time, wrong company.”
Sen. Brown submitted a letter to the newspaper in reply, describing Ta Ann as a “bullying company” involved in destroying rainforests and homelands in Sarawak and referring to being “threatened” by its “predecessors” when visiting Sarawak in the 1990s. The letter also referred to alleged links between the company and the governments of Sarawak and Australia, and said it “made no apology for the generic photos” in the advertisement.
Sen Brown complained to the Council that the newspaper failed to allow him a reasonable reply to the “savaging attack” in the letter from Ta Ann. He pointed out that his letter had been published by the Hobart Mercury, which had previously published the same advertisement and Ta Ann letter.
The Examiner responded that Mr Brown’s letter did not substantially contest the points in the Ta Ann letter, instead it made allegations which were inflammatory and potentially defamatory. It also said that it believed that, if it had run Sen. Brown's letter, a sequence of “tit-for-tat” correspondence would have developed. The newspaper had also received on the same day as Sen. Brown's letter, a further letter from Ta Ann which, in fairness to Sen. Brown, it did not run either.
The Council concluded that Sen Brown would probably have been entitled to publication of a letter refuting the assertions in the Ta Ann letter, but his letter did not substantially do so. In some circumstances, a newspaper might reasonably be expected to help a correspondent re-phrase an attempted reply into a publishable letter. But this does not apply to an experienced correspondent in circumstances of this kind. As there were no other grounds for limiting in this case the general editorial discretion about which letters to publish, the complaint was not upheld.
Note (not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies General Principle 2: "Where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence” and General Principle 3: "Where individuals or groups are a major focus of news reports or commentary, the publication should ensure fairness and balance in the original article. Failing that, it should provide a reasonable and swift opportunity for a balancing response in an appropriate section of the publication."