The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint by Federal MP Andrew Wilkie about editorials in The Examiner, Launceston, on 18 and 19 June 2012. They related to the agreement in 2010 between Mr Wilkie and Prime Minister Gillard that her government would provide a total of $340m to rebuild the Royal Hobart Hospital (RHH).
The first editorial stated that the agreement “is costing Tasmania about $85 million a year in redirected GST funds” because Mr Wilkie “forgot to make the deal exempt” from the “clawback” arrangements for reducing GST payments to States which receive grants from other Federal Government sources. It said the agreement thereby has “squeezed the rest of Tasmania’s health system beyond breaking point where the State government will rip $430m out of the health system over four years”.
The second editorial mentioned that Mr Wilkie had criticised the earlier editorial as inaccurate because the Commonwealth Grants Commission (CGC), which is responsible for calculating GST distributions, said the amount of GST funds lost was $59m, not “about $85m” as claimed by the paper. The newspaper responded that the Tasmanian Premier had said ‘the lost GST figure was $88m”. After reporting Mr Wilkie’s denial that he could have got an exemption, it said he had originally claimed there would be no clawback. It also said a more recent federal health grant had been made exempt from the clawback, “so clearly it can be done”.
Mr Wilkie complained that both editorials incorrectly described the GST clawback, because the only clearly quantifiable impact at this stage is $59m for 2012-13, as determined by the CGC, and it is not yet possible to determine the impact on later years. He also denied ever saying the grant would be exempt from the clawback and said that it was not possible for the RHH grant to have been structured to receive an exemption in the same way as the more recent health funding from the Federal Government. He said the clawback had not yet taken effect and therefore could not be blamed for a “failing health system” and that the overwhelming cause of State cutbacks on health programs was a decline in GST revenue due to general economic conditions, not to the impending clawback on the RHH grant.
The newspaper responded that the comments were a legitimate expression of an opinion in its editorials. It also stood by the accuracy of its statements about the effect on the Tasmanian health system and about Mr Wilkie’s record on the question of an exemption. It noted that, although it declined Mr Wilkie’s request for a correction and apology, after the complaint to the Council it offered to publish his response in a letter to the editor.
The Press Council has concluded that the first editorial included specific assertions about the impact of the RHH agreement which were clearly meant to be read as matters of fact, not opinion. The editorial misrepresented the impact, however, by implying that it would reduce overall Tasmanian revenue, had already started doing so, and was responsible for reducing overall health spending in Tasmania. It quantified the impact without mentioning that there was currently no reliable way of doing so except in relation to 2012-13, for which the official figure was significantly less than it claimed. Accordingly, the complaint is upheld on those grounds.
Having been provided by Mr Wilkie with credible evidence of the reasons why the RHH grant could not have been made exempt from the clawback, the newspaper should have either corrected its previous assertion that he could have done so or at least reported the reasons he gave. Instead, the second editorial reiterated its assertion without reporting or addressing his reasons and sought to reinforce it by a misleading reference to the subsequent Federal Government grant. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld on those grounds.
The Council notes that the newspaper’s main concerns appear to have been that the grant negotiated by Mr Wilkie to a hospital in Hobart indirectly reduced the health funding available for other health needs in Tasmania and that he has not adequately acknowledged this impact. These views could have been clearly and vigorously expressed in a way which did not contravene the Council’s principles.
The Council also notes that an acceptable outcome might have been achieved if Mr Wilkie had sought and been given a right of reply in a prominent article, thereby allowing a somewhat complex issue to be addressed more effectively than in a letter to the editor. This would not, however, have removed the need for the newspaper to correct clear inaccuracies.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle General Principle No 6: "Publications are free to advocate their own views ... as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed ..."; General Principle No 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 an individual 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".