The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an article in The Advertiser on 17 March 2017, headed “BLOWING HIS FUSE: Sparks fly as Premier ambushes minister but exclusive polls reveal SA blames Jay for power crisis” in print, and “As Jay Weatherill confronts Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, poll shows he’s to blame for SA’s power crisis” online.
The first paragraph said “Advertiser-Galaxy polls show voters in key marginal seats believe he [Mr Weatherill] is ‘mostly to blame’ for the state’s power crisis”. The article continued on page six, where it contained a table setting out the details and results of the poll, showing it had asked respondents: “In your opinion, who is mostly to blame for South Australia’s high power prices and blackouts?”. The responses were: “The Weatherill Government”, 39 percent; “The National Energy Market Operator/AEMO”, 35; “Uncommitted”, 16; and “The Turnbull Government”, 10. This table was captioned: “Poll conducted by Galaxy Research on the evening of March 14. The results are based on the opinions of 519 voters in Adelaide, 555 in Mawson and 517 in Newland. The data has been weighted and projected to reflect the population of each electorate.”
In response to a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether it took reasonable steps to ensure the article was accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3).
The publication said opinion polls conducted by Galaxy Research are highly reputable and this poll weighed and projected its responses to reflect the population of each electorate. It said the table spelling out the question, response and methodology was prominently displayed in both the print and online version of the article and the detail of the opinion poll was reported in an accurate, fair and balanced way.
The publication said the electoral seats polled were specifically chosen because of their crucial importance for the state election in March 2018 and this was the first poll conducted under new electoral boundaries made after the 2014 election. It said those who read the full article and the poll details as published, both in print and online, would have understood that the headlines faithfully summarised the findings. The publication also said it had offered the complainant an opportunity to submit a letter to the editor to address these concerns, but this offer was not accepted.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). The Council has also issued an Advisory Guideline on Opinion Polls suggesting that publications disclose a number of details about the poll in order to allow readers to assess its value.
The Council considers the statement “polls reveal SA blames Jay for power crisis” implied as a fact that the poll established that South Australians in general blamed the Premier for the crisis. However, the polling was a sample of only three electorates, and the Council does not consider that this polling size and distribution—even involving key marginal seats—can be said to reflect the opinion of the entire state.
The Council notes that the first paragraph of the article says the poll “show[s] voters in key marginal seats believe he [Mr Weatherill] is most likely to blame”. However, only 39 percent of those sample voters con-sidered the Weatherill Government responsible, with a remaining majority of voters considering otherwise.
While the article subsequently made clear the true position, the Council considers that it was not done in a manner sufficient to redress the inaccuracy and misleading nature of the headline and first paragraph. Accordingly, the Council considers that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the headline and first paragraph were accurate and not misleading, which breached General Principle 1. Further, the Council did not consider the offer to publish a letter sufficient to remedy the inaccuracy, which warranted a correction. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 2.
Given the inclusion of other material in the article such as the poll question, results, and methodology, and the publication’s subsequent offer to publish a letter to the editor, the Council does not consider the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure fairness and balance. Accordingly, the publication did not breach General Principles 3 or 4.
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.