The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an article headed “THE SILENCE OF THE DEAD” in the Saturday Extra section of The Daily Telegraph on 2 January 2016.
The article was spread across two pages. On the left hand page, under the headline, a sub-headline “ROYAL COMMISSIONER DYSON HEYDON HAS EXPOSED THE MURKY WORLD OF UNION POWER IN A DAMNING REPORT ON CORRUPTION…” appeared next to a large image of Royal Commissioner the Hon John Dyson Heydon AC QC. Below this were two quotes, apparently of findings, which were; “He was almost always unbelievable. He conveyed an impression of being a phony”; and “The advantage of blaming a dead man … dead men tell no tales”. Set out opposite on the right hand page was a large screen shot image of Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten appearing as a witness at the Royal Commission including the words “Witness: Bill Shorten”. There were also smaller images of two other men on this page and below these was a second smaller “COMMENT” article.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether, given the words used and the layout, the article breached its Standards of Practice. The Standards applicable in this matter require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and is 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 publication said the material published was not inaccurate or misleading and was fair and balanced. It said it would be clear to anyone who read the story that the quotes featured in the article were not referring to Mr Shorten and the article itself identified the other men to which each of the quotes referred and included smaller images of them which were not located near Mr Shorten’s image. The publication said the Royal Commission had been running for a lengthy period and had attracted a great deal of publicity, part of which related to a trade union of which Mr Shorten had once been leader, and he was the highest profile witness to appear at the Royal Commission. It also said Mr Shorten had repeatedly described the Royal Commission as a “witch-hunt”. For those reasons, the publication said it was appropriate to include a large image of Mr Shorten in the article.
The publication said the Royal Commission’s report was released five days before the article appeared and the publication had reported the Royal Commission’s findings about Mr Shorten on each of those five days on all of its publishing platforms.
The publication said it had not received any complaints from Mr Shorten or the Australian Labor Party about the article. It also said while critical findings had been made against other union leaders, the adjacent comment article expressly reported that Mr Shorten had escaped censure by the Royal Commission.
The Council considers that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the article was not misleading or unfair. Mr Shorten was exonerated by the Royal Commission. The Council considers that the presentation of the article including the sub-headline, the large image of the Royal Commissioner and the screen shot of Mr Shorten giving evidence set out opposite each other, the presentation of the quotes in large font without an indication of who they referred to all combined to convey a misleading and unfair impression that the quoted adverse findings referred to Mr Shorten. Mr Shorten was not named in the text of the article and though the adjacent comment article did say (in the third-last paragraph) that Mr Shorten “dodged censure for his time at the helm” of the Australian Workers’ Union, this did not offset these other adverse aspects. Accordingly, the Council considers that the publication breached General Principles 1 and 3.
In light of the nature of the breach and the lack of complaint by Mr Shorten himself, the Council does not make any finding of a breach of General Principles 2 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.”