The Press Council considered a complaint by Peter Burke of the Handle Property Group about an article in WA Today on 4 September 2014 headed “High-rise process ignores rights of Perth residents”.
The article referred to planning approvals through the WA Planning Commission's Development Assessment Panel (DAP) and proposed developments in the City of St Vincent, and focused on Handle’s development of an apartment complex on Palmerston Street.
Mr Burke said the article was inaccurate and misleading in saying that: (a) DAPs “gave developers the right to bypass local councils”; (b) the approval of the Palmerston Street development was “ignoring a condition of sale in 2002 that any development on the site be no higher than three storeys”; and (c) 60 of the 125 proposed units were “already pre-sold”. He also said the images used in the article were old designs and misrepresented the size of the development.
Mr Burke said that all development applications with a construction value of over $7m require approval from the DAP and not a council, and no developer has a “right” to bypass council. He said expressions of interest had been taken on units at Palmerston Street, but none had been “pre-sold”. Mr Burke also said the development of the site was consistent with the council’s planning codes and it was misleading to refer to conditions of sale in 2002, given that the conditions had changed since then and the application was compliant with current planning codes.
Mr Burke said that the publication did not contact the developer for comment prior to publication. He also said the reporter had a close family member who had actively opposed the development and this conflict of interest was not disclosed. He said he wrote to the publication the day after publication and tried to address the matter, but the publication maintained there were no inaccuracies and he would have an opportunity to comment in further stories planned on the issue. However, no further articles were published.
The publication said it was accurate to state the development had “bypassed” local councils because it ‘bypassed’ usual council planning processes since the DAP had the power of approval. It said the initial sale of the Palmerston Street property was under zoning conditions that restricted development to a height of three storeys. However, it acknowledged these conditions later changed and the report could have reflected this more clearly.
The publication said the reporter had been told by the agent a number of units had been “reserved”, sold or subject to “expression of interest”, and conceded the article could have included these words rather than “pre-sold”.
The publication said the article was the first in a planned series of articles on DAPs, although only this story was published. It said the issues had been brought to its attention through a close family member of the reporter, who owns a property near the development and was one of 70 members of a residents’ action group opposing it. However, it said the sources for the story were a different member of that group, and a state government lobbyist who provided material relating to the development and the DAP process. As a result of further investigation, the focus of the article changed from the development itself to the DAP process and a high-rise density issue in Perth.
It said it had attempted to address the complainant’s concerns directly with him, and had offered to include the complainant’s comments in future articles.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require reasonable steps to ensure that: factual material is accurate and not misleading and corrections or other adequate remedial action are undertaken if material is significantly inaccurate or misleading (General Principles 1 and 2); and conflicts of interests are avoided or adequately disclosed, and do not influence published material (General Principle 8).
The Council considers that the Palmerston Street development was the prominent focus of the article and it was misleading to state the approval procedures gave developers the “right” to bypass councils when they had no choice in the matter. The images published were not the design for which approval was being sought, and the publication did not take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy in this respect. The statement that 60 units were “already pre-sold” did not accurately reflect the sales status of the units. Accordingly, the Council considers General Principle 1 breached in these respects.
The Council also considers the publication ought to have taken remedial action when the complainant contacted it. The publication’s offer to include the complainant’s views in future stories was inadequate, especially since no further articles were published. Accordingly, the Council finds a breach of General Principle 2.
While it may commonly occur that an article is instigated by a reporter’s personal experience or those of relatives and friends, in this instance the article was heavily focused on the particular development which related to the reporter’s interest and was published without seeking a response from the developer. No follow-up stories were published to provide further balance beyond the issue that arose from the reporter’s interest. Accordingly, the Council considers a disclaimer was required clarifying the reporter’s interest in the development and finds a breach of General Principle 8 in this respect.
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.
8. Ensure that conflicts of interests are avoided or adequately disclosed, and that they do not influence published material.”