The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published online in the Herald Sun on 13 January 2017, headed “Thousands of public servants got a free week off at Christmas, and critics want to know why”. The headline was repeated in a caption accompanying a stock photograph of clinking wine glasses, with “free paid-up week off” substituting “free week”.
The article began: “EXCLUSIVE: TENS of thousands of public servants were gifted a bonus week’s paid holiday between Christmas and New Year’s Day”. The second paragraph stated that “News Corp Australia can reveal workers at the Australian Taxation Office [ATO], Department of Social Services, Safe Work Australia and Treasury were among the government divisions simply given three days’ leave on full pay from Wednesday December 28 to Friday December 30, following the Christmas and Boxing Day public holidays”. The article then featured another photograph, of an office building, captioned: “Free week off at the Australian Taxation Office in Canberra City”. The concluding paragraph of the article included a comment from a spokesperson for the Community and Public Sector Union, that “the extra days of leave were a ‘trade-off for something else’ such as a lower overall pay rise”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether it took reasonable steps to ensure that its description of the leave to workers at the identified public service divisions was accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and was presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principles 3).
The publication said its information was obtained from government sources, including from the Department of Employment, and that it also specifically asked all of the government departments whether they were in effect giving “free” days off. It said it received several responses explaining there were trade-offs in the conditions that allowed this, but that others such as the ATO, Treasury and the Department of Employment made no express mention of trade-offs for the leave. In particular, the publication said the ATO’s statement to its reporter contained no suggestion that the days off were part of its enterprise bargaining agreement.
As the comment provided by the ATO offered no justification for the additional days, it was not included in the article.
The publication said there is a public interest in the discussion of public servants being granted such leave, which is unavailable to other workers, given private sector trends towards obliging many workers to use annual leave over the Christmas period.
The publication added that it received no request to remedy the article from any of the government divisions, but would have considered any request.
The Council considers that in the overall context of the article, the statement that “News Corp Australia can reveal workers at the Australian Taxation Office, Department of Social Services, Safe Work Australia and Treasury were among the governments divisions simply given three days’ leave”, is presented as a verified fact. The Council considers that the article did not contain any evidence substantiating or supporting
First, the Council accepts the publication obtained its information from government sources, including the Department of Employment. Second, the Council accepts the publication asked the ATO and Treasury whether they were in effect giving “free” days off, and that in their response, they made no explicit mention of trade-offs for the leave. Third, the Council also accepts the publication asked the Department of Social Services and Safe Work Australia whether they were in effect given “free” days off. On the information available to the Council, it is unable to conclude whether the publication received any response from these divisions or if any such response confirmed there were no trade-offs for the leave. In the circumstances, the Council considers that the publication needed to make further enquiries to verify this information.
The Council does not consider that the lack of an express denial or the absence of any response amounted to sufficient verification to present the statement as a verified fact. The Council considers that the publication did not take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy, fairness and balance, given the unqualified nature of the statement. In any event, the statements that the three days’ leave constituted a full “free week”, a “free paid-up week” or a “bonus week” were inaccurate and unfair.
Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy, fairness and balance, in breach of General Principles 1 and 3. In the circumstances, and in the absence of any complaint from the identified divisions, the Council does not consider the publication breached General Principle 2 or 4, in respect of corrections or rights of reply.
Relevant Council Standards
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.