The Press Council considered a complaint about a letter to the editor published under the heading “Family Affair” in The Maitland Mercury in print on 8 September 2017. The letter was published on the day before local government elections took place. The letter expressed the writer’s concern about “instances of more than one nomination from the same family” and referred specifically to the complainant, noting that seven members of his family had nominated for election to the local council and that if all the family members were elected, there would be a local council “with a majority from the one family.”
The complainant said the suggestion that a majority of the local council might be from his family was inaccurate and unfair and the publication would have been well aware of this given its experience in reporting on elections. The complainant said it was virtually impossible in a proportional preferential election that a majority of local council members could be made up from his family.
The complainant said that the publication of the letter on the day before the election was unfair and lacked balance as he was not afforded the opportunity to respond in the same edition. The complainant also expressed concern about the effect the letter had on his mayoral candidacy, saying that he lost the mayoral election by a small margin and noting that copies of the letter were distributed by his political opponents via social media.
The complainant said he wanted the publication to publish an apology and a correction to resolve the complaint.
The publication said it published the letter the day before the election as it considered the views expressed by the writer were newsworthy, relevant and represented a concern within its community. The publication said that over the course of the election, it published a number of articles concerning candidates in what it described as an unusual election campaign that involved anonymous threatening letters, police being called, and verbal attacks on the outgoing mayor. The publication said that, in the course of reporting such stories and seeking comment from the complainant, relations with the complainant became strained and communications with him eventually ceased. It said in this context, and with the letter not containing any offensive comments or comments suggesting the complainant was acting inappropriately, it did not contact the complainant for comment.
The Press Council’s Standards of Practice require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance and writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts (General Principle 3) and where material refers adversely to a person, provide a fair opportunity for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3 (General Principle 4).
The Council considers that the letter suggested that only one member of a “family” should be permitted to stand for elections. In this respect, the letter was adverse to the complainant’s candidacy for the position of mayor, because it could be understood as suggesting that to vote for the complainant could contribute to what the writer considered was an undesirable outcome.
As the letter was published on the day before the election with no balancing comment or response from any source, the only fair time for the publication to afford the complainant an opportunity to respond was in the same edition, which did not occur. The Council concludes that the publication breached General Principles 3 and 4 by publishing the letter, which contained material adverse to the candidate and failing to afford the complainant a fair opportunity for reply before the election was held. The Council considers it was not necessary, in reaching this conclusion, to determine the effect, if any, of the publication of the letter on the election result.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to
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.
This Adjudication also applies part of the Advisory Guideline on Reporting Elections: “The timing of material is [a] very important issue, especially for non-daily papers. Newspapers need to be wary about publishing material critical of candidates at a time when there would be no opportunity, before the election, for the candidate to supply a balancing response.”