The Press Council considered a complaint from the West Coast Eagles Football Club (“the Club”) relating to an article published by the Herald Sun on 1 October 2015 in print, headed “EAGLES DRUG HELL". The article was also published online on 30 September, headed “Daniel Chick breaks silence about drug culture at West Coast Eagles”.
The article appeared just before the Club’s appearance in the 2015 AFL Grand Final on 3 October 2015. It offered an account by a former player, Daniel Chick, of his opinions of the Club’s management and claims about substance abuse while he was playing for the club.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading or not reasonably fair and balanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4).
The Club said the article was inaccurate and lacked fairness and balance in its claims about: (a) a “toxic culture of abuse of prescription and illicit drugs and cover-ups” in which officials were involved and (b) an alleged incident in which a staffer hid a player from a drug tester.
It also said that the publication made no attempt to contact the club or its medical staff for comment prior to publication. When approached after publication, the Club was unable to respond adequately because it was in the midst of its preparations for the Grand Final.
The publication said the articles were based on a number of conversations with Daniel Chick over the space of a year. It said the comments in relation to drug testing were attributed as Mr Chick’s “claims”. The publication said the Club had a well-documented drug culture at that time; a number of players had experienced public battles with drugs and the Club had been the subject of an investigation for the AFL Commission conducted by former Supreme Court Justice Gillard. It said the article reported on matters of which Mr Chick had personal knowledge and it had no reason to doubt his credibility in these matters.
The publication said it did not approach the Club with Mr Chick’s allegations prior to publication as it was concerned that the Club might intimidate Mr Chick or seek to prevent the article from being published. However, it said the Club’s denials had been published that same day online and in articles published in the newspaper the following day. The publication said it had telephoned a Club doctor on the day after publication and given him an opportunity to respond. However, when asked about the claims, the doctor had hung up on the reporter.
The Council considers the article raised new and serious allegations – described by the publication as a ‘bombshell’ – in relation to ongoing public coverage of the possible drugs culture within AFL. The report was published prominently on the front page two days before the West Coast Eagles’ appearance in the 2015 AFL Grand Final, an understandably critical time for the Club.
The Council considers that, as the publication had been speaking with Daniel Chick for some time prior to publication, it should have sought comment from the Club before publication given the seriousness of the allegations, their timing and prominence. The Council considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to present the material with the fairness and balance required by General Principle 3. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
The Council doubts whether an opportunity to reply after publication of the article, and before or just after the Grand Final, would have allowed a fair opportunity to reply, but as this was not the subject of complaint the Council makes no finding about this aspect.
In relation to General Principle 1, the Council considers that the available information does not enable it to determine the asserted facts or the accuracy of the various claims made in the article. Accordingly, no finding is made in respect of this aspect.
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.”