The Press Council considered a complaint by Clancy Dobbyn on behalf of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) about an article published in the Herald Sun online on 27 August 2015. The article, headed “Taskforce Heracles police raid CFMEU offices”, reported that the “CFMEU offices in Swanston Street have been raided…before 9am” by police from Taskforce Heracles, established to examine allegations referred to it by the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.
The complainant said the report that a police raid had been conducted was inaccurate, misleading and unfair as no such raid had taken place. He said upon being contacted by the publication at approximately 10:20am that morning, he stated he had no knowledge of any raid, but would get back to the journalist if there was any further comment to be made. Shortly afterward, the complainant said John Setka, Secretary of the CFMEU’s Victorian branch, tweeted that “Herald Sun's Steven Drill has tipped us Vic office about to be raided by #turc police!”.
The complainant said the article unfairly included comments that “[i]t was unclear whether the police officers removed any documents from the union headquarters” and that “Victoria police declined to comment on the raid this afternoon”, which implied there was substance to the assertion there had been a raid and that police were simply declining to provide further information. He said had the publication sought to confirm any document removal with the CFMEU, it would have provided the union with a further opportunity to deny that a police raid had occurred.
The complainant said based on his response and Mr Setka’s tweet, the publication ought to have been aware the CFMEU – the occupants of the premises – denied any raid had taken place. He said when the article was published that afternoon, including a homepage item headed “CFMEU offices raided”, he emailed the publication stating “there was no raid of the CFMEU offices this morning”. He said it was only after this email that the publication took steps to correct the report, at approximately 5pm, with an article headed “Police confirm no raid on CFMEU headquarters”.
The complainant said the publication’s remedial actions were inadequate given the seriousness of the allegations and that the second article did not address the details reported initially, that “[r]ank and file CFMEU members at the office said there were several police there” and that “[i]t was unclear whether police officers had removed any documents from the union headquarters”. The complainant also said no apology had been provided to the union and it was also unclear whether the subsequent article was given similar prominence to the first article.
The publication responded that the article was based on information from three well-placed and credible sources, although it did not know whether the sources were at the premises. It said a check was made with the union and police prior to publication, but that no information was provided to contradict information supplied by those sources. It said the tweet by Mr Setka was also unclear, and at the time of publishing it remained confident the information was correct.
The publication said that when the journalist spoke to the complainant in the morning, the complainant did not deny a raid had occurred. The publication said confirmation from the complainant that “there was no raid of the CFMEU offices this morning” did not come until 4:39pm, two hours after the article had been published.
The publication said upon being alerted to the fact the raid had not occurred, it had immediately taken steps to remove the article from relevant websites, delete it from the Google search index and publish a correction. It noted the correction was very prominently identified as a “Correction” and first appeared on the publication’s homepage at 5:11pm, where it remained for approximately 12 hours. It was also published on other publications that carried the first article, including the websites of The Daily Telegraph and The Australian in the 'National News' section. The publication said early the following morning it made further changes to the article’s wording to alter the timeframe from “this morning” to “yesterday morning”. In addition, the journalist tweeted the correction with a link to the article.
The publication said these measures clearly and effectively corrected the substantive inaccuracy. It said more people had read the correction than the original article, the journalist’s correction tweet had trended on Twitter on the evening published, and the erroneous story and correction were also broadcast on the national television program Media Watch, which further ensured the correction received maximum exposure.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require reasonable steps to be taken to ensure that: factual material is accurate, not misleading (General Principle 1), reasonably fair and balanced (General Principle 3), a correction or other adequate remedial action is provided if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading (General Principle 2), and where an article is not reasonably fair and balanced, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply (General Principle 4).
The statement that police had conducted the raid was clearly inaccurate. Despite the publication’s claims that the report was supported by information from three credible sources, it acknowledged that it was not known whether those sources were “at the office” as reported. As such, the information may have been hearsay, requiring greater caution in its use. In addition, the Council does not regard Mr Setka’s tweet as ambiguous: it made clear the raid had not occurred. Given these factors, and in the absence of any confirmation from the CFMEU and police, this ought to have caused the publication to take further steps before publishing the article. Accordingly, the Council concludes that reasonable steps to ensure accuracy were not taken in accordance with General Principle 1, and upheld this aspect of the complaint.
The Council considers that once the publication realised its error, it published a swift, clear and prominent correction. This did amount to adequate remedial action. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principle 2, and this aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
In view of these conclusions, the Council does not consider it necessary to reach conclusions about similar issues which may have arisen in relation 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:
Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
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.
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.”