The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint about an article headed "Staffing crisis 'not our fault'" in Area News, Griffith, on 20 January 2012. The article described staffing shortages at the hospital, quoting the head of the area health service, which manages the hospital, about the problems and efforts made to remedy them. It then described some of Dr Banga’s background and his views about the attractions of Griffith and ways of attracting staff to rural areas.
The complaint focussed on three elements: a headline including the words ‘not our fault’ set in quotation marks above a photograph of Dr Pankaj Banga with the caption "Positions Vacant: Griffith Base Hospital's new director of medical services, Dr Pankaj Banga, is trying to recruit health professionals to fill the roles".
Dr Banga complained that the words ‘not our fault’ were not his words, and did not reflect his views. He said that the article gave an inaccurate and unfair impression that he had been closely involved with the staffing crisis and its resolution, yet he had only just arrived at the hospital. He also complained that his consent to be interviewed and photographed by the newspaper was obtained by dishonest or unfair means. The hospital had issued a media release welcoming his appointment and he believed the interview and photograph were for a “welcome article”, not a report about the staffing crisis. Dr Banga complained that the newspaper then declined his request for publication of an apology and a letter explaining his concerns.
The newspaper said the article was an accurate and balanced description of the staffing difficulties and the comments by the hospital manager and Dr Banga. It said the purpose of the story was made clear to the health service, which had offered Dr Banga for interview, and then to Dr Banga at the interview. The newspaper had been covering the staffing difficulties for some time and saw this article, with its references to Dr Banga’s arrival and background, as a way of improving its relationship with the health service and hospital. It said no apology was warranted and Dr Banga’s letter had been much too long for publication.
The Council has concluded that the published material did not imply that Dr Banga was in any way responsible for the staffing difficulties or failing to take them seriously. The combination of the image and picture caption immediately under the headline might have led some people to associate Dr Banga with the words "not our fault". But it did not convey a clear implication of that kind and the article itself did not convey any adverse implications about his competence and commitment and did not contain any significant inaccuracies. Accordingly, the aspects of the complaint which related to the content of the material are not upheld.
However, the inevitable sensitivities in issues relating to rural doctors and the recent arrival of a senior doctor in the area made it desirable for the newspaper to respond constructively to Dr Banga’s concerns. His letter was much too long for publication but the newspaper should have approached him about editing it or publishing a follow-up article to allay his concerns. The Council notes that the newspaper has indicated it remains ready to publish a follow-up article dealing solely with Dr Banga's appointment.
The Council has concluded that Dr Banga’s understanding of the purpose of the interview and photograph may well have stemmed from confusion between the newspaper and the area health service which arranged the interview with Dr Banga, not from a desire by the reporter to mislead him. Accordingly, while the misunderstanding is regrettable it is not clear how it arose and therefore this aspect of the complaint against the newspaper is not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies part of the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission”, 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" and General Principle 5: “Information obtained by dishonest or unfair means, or the publication of which would involve a breach of confidence, should not be published unless there is an over-riding public interest."