The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint by a group called Save Albert Park (SAP) about articles in The Age on 17 and 19 March 2012 concerning the Australian Grand Prix. The first article said the “official crowd" at the Friday practice session was “70,500, a slight increase on the same day last year and the best Friday result since 2008”. The second article said that "according to organisers" the race itself “drew 114,900 spectators ... - almost 5000 more than last year” and for the full four days of the event the "official total was 313,700 through the turnstiles, the biggest crowds since 2005”.
Peter Goad, on behalf of SAP, complained that the articles implied the numbers were factually accurate despite considerable evidence, well-known to the newspaper, that they were likely to be inaccurate. He provided detailed grounds for disputing the figures, as SAP had done for previous Grand Prix meetings, and also noted that the organisers did not have a precise count because they did not use turnstiles or any other method of accurate counting. He said the newspaper should have given figures from other sources, such as SAP, or at least referred to the long-running dispute over attendance figures at Grand Prix races. He also said the newspaper should have disclosed a conflict of interest due to the benefits which it obtains from the Grand Prix organisers in advertising, hospitality and other respects.
The newspaper responded that the words "official" and “according to the organisers” were used to indicate that the figures were not being asserted or confirmed by the newspaper itself. It added, however, that there was no need to quote SAP figures because they had no "official" validity. The newspaper said that the phrase "through the turnstiles" was used as a figure of speech, not to imply that the figures were correct. It had previously published editorials questioning the value of the Grand Prix and letters questioning the official figures, including letters from SAP. It denied that any commercial considerations might have influenced its articles.
The Press Council has concluded that the newspaper was well aware of the questionable accuracy of the attendance figures and the public significance of the issue. But it used words which, whatever its intention, added to the perceived credibility of the figures and made detailed and favourable comparisons with figures from earlier times which were of similarly doubtful accuracy. The only reference to any dispute about the success of the Grand Prix was very brief and related to its overall financial impacts on the State, not to attendance figures. Other references conveyed a favourable view of the event’s success. Accordingly, the Council considers that the articles were not sufficiently fair and balanced and the complaint is upheld on those grounds.
The Council considers that, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the benefits deriving to the newspaper from Grand Prix advertising and hospitality were of a sufficiently routine and well-known nature that they did not require declaration as a conflict of interests. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies 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”; and part of the Council’s General Principle No 6: "Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. ... readers should be advised of any ... potential conflicts of interest".