The Press Council has considered a complaint by Tony Murphy about a print and online article headed “Former boss at second building union named as scandal widens” with an additional heading “Kickback scandal spreads to second union as former plumbers’ national boss is implicated” on 10 February 2014.
The article said Mr Murphy was “implicated in kickbacks for contracts racket” and that the publication “can also reveal that” Mr Murphy, “a former national president and Victorian Assistant Secretary of the Plumbing Trades Employees Union… sought kickbacks from several subcontractors in return for helping them win work on sites”. It said law enforcement agencies “have evidence” that he “demanded payments as part of a cash-for-contracts racket” and that senior plumbers union officials removed him from his role in early 2012 “after hearing allegations of his improper behaviour”. It also said he “could not be reached for comment”.
Mr Murphy said he had never sought or accepted kickbacks and the statement that he had been removed from his role in 2012 is incorrect and unfair as he resigned from his role due to health reasons, which had been reported at the time.
He said the publication did not ask him to comment before the article appeared, even though he had a publicly-listed telephone with a message bank and a google search would show where he has lived for eight years. He said an associate with whom he had previously worked closely visited him four days before the article appeared and told him of some matters in which The Age was interested but did not tell him about the main allegations that were subsequently published.
The publication reiterated the assertions in the article. In relation to contacting Mr Murphy for prior comment, it said that it did not know where he lived and could not get his phone number. It said that during the week or so before the article appeared it spoke with the associate about its intention to write about Mr Murphy’s activities. The associate asked “what does [Tony Murphy] need to know about” and, knowing they had been close associates, the publication then asked him to pass the allegations on to Mr Murphy. It concluded that he would act as an intermediary in this way.
The publication later found out from other sources that the associate had done so. It also texted the associate that “if [Mr Murphy] wants to hear what [one of the relevant journalists] wants to ask him, call [the journalist] on [a stated number]”. The associate responded that he did not have any contact details for Mr Murphy. After the article appeared, the publication offered to interview Mr Murphy for a further article but he declined.
The assertion that Mr Murphy received illegal kickbacks was very serious one and was presented as a statement of fact, not an allegation or suspicion. In these circumstances it is usually necessary in the interests of both accuracy and fairness to make reasonable efforts to contact the person to whom the statement relates so that his or her comments can be taken into account and included to some extent in the article. This may apply even if the publication is firmly and justifiably convinced that the statements are accurate.
Exceptions to this general requirement may include, for example, situations where advance warning could enable the person to leave the country, to intimidate sources, or to unreasonably seek an injunction to prevent the assertion being published. But the publication did not argue that any such exceptions applied in this case.
The information obtainable by the Council does not enable it to be entirely sure whether the publication made reasonable attempts to contact Mr Murphy directly or that its use of the associate as an intermediary was sufficient to ensure reasonable fairness and accuracy.
However, the apparently incorrect statement by the associate that he could not contact Mr Murphy, together with the subsequent refusal of Mr Murphy to put his side of the case, tend to confirm the publication’s assertion that he was given sufficient opportunity to comment before and after the article appeared. They also tend to confirm that the publication had taken reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of its assertions.
On this basis, the complaints are not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle (as it stood at the relevant time) 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced” and 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”.