The Press Council considered a complaint by Brisbane City councillor Nicole Johnston, about an article published by the Brisbane Times on Monday 13 April 2015. The online report was headed “Councillor Nicole Johnston charged with being drunk in a public place”.
The article was first published at 8:01am and referred to an incident in the early hours of the previous Saturday in which Cr Johnston was “charged with being drunk in a public place”. The article referred to Cr Johnston being “ejected from the council chamber 39 times since 2010” for “inappropriate behaviour” and said the police had been called to “forcibly remove her” from the chamber a number of times.
Cr Johnston said that the statements in the article that she had been “arrested and detained by police outside a bar in Ann Street about 1am Saturday” and that she “became aggravated after being refused entry” were not accurate. They were not supported by any official document or account of her arrest. The statement that she had been “forcibly removed” from Council chambers was misleading. She had been asked to leave in accordance with Council regulations, and had done so when police arrived and escorted her out. Cr Johnston said the photo accompanying the article and the term “forcibly” accompanying the report of her arrest had unfairly contributed to an adverse implication about her.
Cr Johnston said that no-one from the publication had contacted her before the article first appeared to check the reasons for her arrest. She said that after the first version of the article, she had contacted the publication to correct the statements about her. A follow-up report repeated the untrue assertion that she was refused entry to a bar. She said it was untrue and unfair to state that “Cr Johnston declined to comment” when she had specifically told the reporter that part of the information they had published was incorrect. Cr Johnston said the publication did not meet her subsequent requests to have the article altered and for an apology.
The publication said Cr Johnston’s objection to the use of the term “forcibly” was a matter of semantics.
The statement was fair given that police had been called numerous times to the Council chambers after the Chair had directed her to leave and she had refused. However, it said that after being contacted by the complainant, it had removed the word “forcibly”.
The publication said that the article was published in good faith based on the information provided by police sources at that time. It said after further checking with police, it emerged that the arrest was at a taxi rank, and not outside a bar, and that aspect was corrected in a revised version at 9.47am. The publication also said that it published a response by the complainant on the matter in a further revised version at 11.03am.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate, and not misleading (General Principle 1); is reasonably fair and balanced (General Principle 3); and to publish corrections or take other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading (General Principle 2). They also require reasonable steps to ensure that a person adversely referred to is given a fair opportunity for publication of a reply (General Principle 4).
The Council considers that on the material available it cannot determine the precise circumstances of Cr Johnston’s arrest, nor whether the publication took reasonable steps to ensure accuracy. The Council makes no finding with reference to General Principle 1 or 2.
The publication’s report appears to be based on police sources and an earlier report by another publication. The inclusion of the disputed assertions about the circumstances of the arrest were significant enough to require that Cr Johnston be given a fair opportunity for her response to be included in the first version published at 8.01am. The earlier report of the incident by another publication had not included these details. The failure to give that opportunity was unreasonable, and was compounded by the statement in the revised article at 9.47am that Cr Johnston had declined to comment, despite her contacting the publication to dispute aspects of its account. The Council concludes that the publication failed to ensure reasonable fairness and had failed to give a fair opportunity for a reply.
The reference to Cr Johnston being “forcibly” removed was not necessarily inaccurate. However, the Council considers that it unfairly suggested a pattern of behavior linked to the statements about the circumstances of her arrest. This enhanced the Council’s concerns about the publication’s failure to comply with its Standards in relation to fairness and balance and the opportunity for a reply. Accordingly, the Council finds a breach of its Standards in regard to General Principles 3 and 4.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to
1: Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.”
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.