The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article headed “$390k tugboat workers to strike for 40pc rise” in The Australian Financial Review on 7 August 2014. It reported that tugboat operator Teekay Shipping would seek a Federal Court injunction against proposed strike action over wage and shift conditions by 52 members of the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers (AIMPE) employed at Port Hedland. The article was published two days before the proposed strike and said it would lead to suspension of tugboat services and significant delays to exports worth about $100m per day.
Andrew Williamson of the AIMPE complained that the headline was inaccurate and misleading by implying all 52 engineers earned $390,000 per annum and that the dispute centred on a 40% pay rise. He said the base salary for the engineers was $229,000 and even the three who received housing allowances in Port Hedland did not receive total remuneration as high as $390,000.
The complainant also said it was inaccurate and misleading to allege the claim was for a “40pc rise”. He said an ambit claim for an increase of 38% over four years was made 13 months before the article appeared but had progressively been reduced to 14% over four years by the time the article was published. He said he made this clear to the journalist and the claim was reported accurately in the article itself but the headline reference was misleading and grossly unfair.
The publication responded that the reference to $390,000 accurately reported Teekay as saying that when account is taken of housing and other subsidies, engineers at Port Hedland could earn between $280,000 and $390,000 per year. It said the reference to the 40% claim reflected the union’s formal log of claim which equated to 38% over four years and had been rounded to 40% in the headline.
The publication said it was not possible to encapsulate all of the claims in the headline, but when read together with the article both sides’ positions had been reflected accurately. It said the reduction to a 14% claim had not been placed in writing at that time of publication but the article had quoted the union as saying “it was pushing for a 14 per cent increase, or 3.5 per cent a year”. The publication also said in response to Mr Williamson’s subsequent complaint it had offered him an opportunity to further explain the position in a letter to the editor.
The Press Council has concluded that the headline was inaccurate, misleading and unfair in describing the engineers as “390k tugboat workers” when that figure was at the top of a large range of earnings across which individual tugboat workers earnings might lie. The Council has arrived at the same conclusion about the description of the claim as being for a “40pc rise” when the claim had been reduced to 14% over four years not to a single year.
The article itself described each of these aspects of the situation more accurately than did the headline, but that does not adequately compensate for the failings of the headline. It cannot generally be assumed that readers of a striking but inaccurate headline will also read and analyse all or most of an accompanying article which explains the situation more accurately. As there was no adequate justification for such an assumption in this case, the complaint is upheld.