The Council considered a complaint about a news article headed “PM Julia Gillard 'slapped down' at G20 summit by the President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso” which appeared in the online version of The Daily Telegraph on 19 June 2012.
The opening three sentences of the article said: "The PM has been publicly slapped down at the G20 summit by the President of the European Commission for lecturing Europe on how to solve its economic crisis. In an embarrassing swipe at the PM, on the first day of the official meeting of leaders gathered at [the G20 summit] EC President Jose Manuel Barroso said he would not be lectured by anyone. ‘Frankly, we are not coming here to receive lessons in terms of democracy or in terms of how to handle the economy,’ he said”.
The complainant, Nick Green, said the headline and article were inaccurate because the President’s comments had not been directed explicitly or implicitly at Ms Gillard. He based this assertion on a transcript of Mr Barroso’s press conference and pointed out that neither Australia nor Ms Gillard were mentioned in it, by contrast with the US and Canada.
The publication said in reply that its journalist had been at the G20 Summit and knew the context in which Mr Barroso’s comments were made. This included a letter to G20 leaders from Ms Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan describing, amongst other things, some steps they thought Europe must take and some steps which all G20 countries should take. She had spoken to a meeting of G20 business leaders on the day before the Summit, saying amongst other things that “we do believe there are some lessons for the world in the Australian way”. She added that tight fiscal discipline is “the most important lesson of the current crisis” and “I’ll be urging my European friends this: Take note of the Australian way”.
The publication also said comments by Mr Barroso’s spokesperson in response to a query from The Australian, together with off-the-record remarks by some European diplomats and business people at the Summit, supported the claim that he intended to refer to Ms Gillard. It said the article did not claim the comments were directed solely at Ms Gillard. It also noted that the Australian Government's response to the alleged criticisms had been reported later in the article.
The Press Council considers that Mr Barroso’s comment about lessons on the economy may have been a veiled reference to Ms Gillard amongst other leaders, although the accompanying comment about lessons on democracy is likely to have related solely to other leaders.
But it has concluded that there was insufficient basis for reporting that she had been “publicly slapped down” by Mr Barroso. His public comment was too measured, and its target or targets were expressed too vaguely, for such a description to be accurate or fair. There is a clear contrast, for example, with the specific criticism of North American countries earlier in his answer to the question.
Neither Mr Barroso’s email nor the claims of private comments by unnamed European officials provides sufficient basis for the claim that Ms Gillard had been “publicly slapped down”. Those words convey a level of public, vigorous and directed criticism which Mr Barroso did not make and which, if he had done so, would have been of much greater diplomatic significance.
Accordingly, the complaint is 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.”