The Press Council has considered complaints by a law firm, Slater & Gordon, about two articles that appeared in The Age on 13 October 2012 as well as in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times. The first (“Gillard gave support for union group’s registration”) was a news report which led with a claim about the role of Julia Gillard in the incorporation of the AWU Workplace Reform Association in 1992. The second (“Parting company: ‘Brothers no more’”) was a lengthy investigative piece by the same journalist focussing on the impact of publicity about Ms Gillard’s departure from Slater & Gordon on a friendship between two former partners, Nick Styant-Browne and Peter Gordon.
The news report
Slater & Gordon complained that two statements in the report inaccurately and unfairly implied it was concealing the existence of a file about incorporation of the association and preventing or delaying release of the file to a person who was entitled to it (namely, the alleged client, Mr Ralph Blewitt). The first statement was that another law firm had been “pressing Slater & Gordon for more than a month” to enable Mr Blewitt “to gain access to the association incorporation file”. The second statement was that a former lawyer had “accused the firm of stalling” in providing access to the file.
The firm said that the journalist should have given it an opportunity to comment before the material was published. It said the journalist would then have been informed that it did not hold any files about incorporation of the association and the only documentation it knew of about the matter had been created by Ms Gillard and was not recorded by her in the firm’s system or held by it. The journalist would also have been informed that Mr Blewitt was not the client for Ms Gillard’s work on the association and therefore would not be entitled to access any file on it. The firm said Mr Blewitt had been a client for other work by Ms Gillard for which the firm did have files and had provided them to him within days of being asked to do so.
The publication replied that in the same article it had reported that Ms Gillard had not created a “formal file”. It had also reported in a subsequent article that Slater & Gordon said it could not find any documents relating to the matter. It denied that the article suggested Slater & Gordon was hiding files, and also pointed out that the claim about stalling was in a quote from the former lawyer, not a statement by the journalist. It said comment had not been sought from the firm before publication because it had seen legal correspondence from and on behalf of Slater & Gordon which supported the claim of delay, and because there was a real risk of injunction to prevent publication.
The Council has concluded that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure fairness in the report in relation to whether the firm held a file on incorporation of the association. Even if the story is interpreted as having done no more than report allegations, rather than endorse them, their gravity was such that the firm should have been given a reasonable opportunity to respond prior to publication. The legal correspondence relied on by the publication did not provide sufficiently strong grounds for its failure to do so. The Council has also concluded that failure to seek comment for fear of triggering an injunction may be justifiable in some circumstances but in this instance the risk of an injunction did not relate to the statements in question and they could readily have been checked with the firm. Accordingly, the complaint about the report is upheld on these grounds.
The feature article
Slater & Gordon complained that it had not been given a reasonable opportunity to respond to five passages in the article which implied it had engaged in a whitewash to protect the office of the Prime Minister. The publication replied that the relevant assessments and descriptions of the firm were fair comment, and that Mr Gordon’s views had been detailed fairly and comprehensively.
The Council has concluded that two of the passages in question were so serious and adverse that the firm should have been given a reasonable opportunity to respond before publication. They are the quotation of Mr Styant-Brown as saying that “[Slater and Gordon], in my view, have this sort of untrammelled objective of protection and hiding adverse material at all costs”, and the article’s description of a working draft of Mr Gordon’s media statement as “a document that made a mockery of [a] media statement” by the firm’s managing partner.
Accordingly, the complaint against the article is upheld in relation to those two passages. It is not upheld in relation to the other three passages.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies part of General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced.” 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.”