After receiving a complaint from a reader, the Press Council has considered a complaint about an article, "Wagners allays jet noise concerns", published on page 1 of The Chronicle on 3 October 2013, and continuing on page 3 under the heading, "Jet noise no louder than dishwasher". It concerned the Wellcamp Airport which is being built and financed by Wagners group of companies near Toowoomba in Queensland.
The article presented the views of the Managing Director, Dennis Wagner, on possible noise levels from the airport. The first sentence read: “Claims that jets at Wellcamp Airport will deafen Westbrook residents have been rejected by the family company driving the project”. A later sentence read: “Initial noise level projections carried out by Wagners showed residents in Westbrook would typically experience readings of less than 55 decibels as 717 jets took off from the airport”. The article included several other quotes from Mr Wagner, but none from other sources.
The issues considered by the Council related to its General Principle about the need for publications to take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. In particular, they concerned the accuracy of claims from an interested party about noise levels without seeking expert comment or alternative views on those claims.
The publication said the article did include a reference to the fact noise projections are subject to change. It acknowledged it could perhaps have sought comment from a defence or noise expert, but said there had been very few letters opposing the airport and it had published everything submitted on the subject. It said Wagners itself had conducted a survey of affected residents which showed overwhelming support for the airport. Nevertheless, the publication had run the article to allay any concerns about noise levels, and had received no complaints about inaccuracies. It said the issue had been raised in previous articles and in letters to the editor, but Wagners had been unavailable to comment at the time and it was appropriate to give the company a right of reply. It said there was no reason to believe Wagners was not being truthful in its comments.
The Council considered other articles and letters that had been published on the subject of the airport, both before and after the article in question. On the day after the article in question, the paper published “10 of the best reader views”, six in support of the airport and four opposed. A number of comments were posted below the online version of the article. Of these, several raised questions about noise levels. These questions were not addressed in later editions.
In eight news reports published in the ten months leading up to the article, no views opposing the airport were quoted apart from those of a Sydney radio announcer and, on one occasion, a friend of his who lived close to the airport. Most of the articles highlighted benefits the airport would bring to Toowoomba. Two letters were published, one in support of the airport and another in response, from the radio announcer. Later that month, an editorial and an opinion piece from a former Vice-Chancellor of the local university were published, both in support of the airport.
The Council has decided on the material provided to it that the noise claims may or may not be accurate, but it is clear the publication did not take reasonable steps to ensure their accuracy. The publication did not ask to see the study by Wagners on noise level projections, and it did not seek the opinion of any specialists on the subject. In addition, while the Council’s Principles do not require complete, or almost complete, fairness or balance, the comments by Dennis Wagner were so prominent and so overwhelmingly positive, some attempt should have been made to include alternative views, such as those evident in letters and reader comments.
Accordingly, the Council has decided the article breached its Principles.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”.