The Press Council considered a complaint from the Threatened Species Recovery Hub (“Hub”) about an article published by The Courier-Mail headed "Mega-mine's future in hands of greenies" in print on page 2 leading to an article on page 4 headed “Birds of a feather in review of mega-mine” and “QLD POLITICS: Anti-coal group could have final say on Adani mine" online on 21 January 2019.
The print article reported that “the fate of Queensland’s Carmichael mine is in the hands of an environmental group whose members champion radical action on climate change, oppose coal and have appeared as expert witnesses against Adani” given the fact that “the Threatened Species Recovery Hub has been hand-picked by the Palaszczuk Government to review one of the [Adani] mine’s environmental management plans.” It said, “the Hub appears certain to condemn Adani’s finch management plan, given its experts have for years vocally condemned Adani, coal mining and the use of biodiversity offsets to cater for habitat loss…” and the “Hub’s leaders have also used social media to advocate for radical action to tackle climate change, oppose coal-fired power and condemn mining.” The article included comments from an Adani spokesperson criticising the Hub’s appointment by the State Government, and who described it as “compromised” and “incapable of providing an independent review.” Above the article were the names of the Chair of the panel and six other panel members and brief examples of each those members’ environmental activities. The online article was in similar terms.
The complainant said the article’s statement that the Hub “has been hand-picked by the Palaszczuk Government to review one of the [Carmichael] mine’s environmental management plans” is inaccurate because the Hub is not conducting this review. Of the seven Hub members named in the article as part of the review panel, only one was actually involved in carrying out the review. The complainant acknowledged that the error was caused by incorrect information provided by the Queensland State Government to the publication and that a subsequent article published on 23 January 2019 clarified this. The complainant said that the overall remedial action taken by the publication to correct the error that the Hub had been appointed was acceptable, although the publication had not published an online correction.
The complainant said the article’s references to the Hub as an “anti-coal group”, “greenies” and an “environmental group” were inaccurate, misleading and damaging to the Hub’s reputation. The complainant said the article suggested the Hub is a group of environmental activists, when in fact it is a collaboration of more than 150 world-class research scientists from the CSIRO, Australian Universities and various non-government organisations working on the challenge of how to recover Australia’s threatened species. The complainant said that the article’s reference to it as “compromised” and “incapable of providing an independent review” were inaccurate and misleading as it was not carrying out the review and undermines its legitimacy and could adversely affect its ongoing funding.
The complainant also said that the Hub was not contacted by the publication prior to the publication of the article and was not able to have its response included in the article. Although the publication published an opinion piece by the Deputy Director of the Hub on 22 February 2019, the arrangement for it did not allow the author to respond fully to all the aspects of the article.
The publication said that prior to publication of the article it received direct confirmation from the Queensland Government that the Hub was conducting the review. It said that this error on the part of the Queensland Government was clarified in detail in the article of 23 January 2019, which now appeared online under the original online article to give it context. It had also updated the online version of the original article to clarify that the Hub was not carrying out the review and published a correction in print on 22 January 2019 stating that “not all” of the Hub members named in the article as part of the review panel would be involved in the review. It also published an opinion piece by the Deputy Director of the Hub on 22 February 2019 which was a robust defence of scientific practice. It also said the Hub did not request that it be able to respond in the opinion piece more generally to the article.
The publication said that it is not inaccurate to describe the Hub as an “environmental group” as it is a collection of experts and the activities of its members have an environmental focus and the words “environmental group” and “greenies” are a shorthand way of explaining that the group devotes its time to recover threatened species. The publication also said the “anti-coal” reference in the online headline is in response to the fact that the majority of the people profiled as members of the group hold views that are either critical of the Adani project or coal mining in general. The publication referred to photographs taken from one of the Hub member’s social media accounts that showed the member’s children carrying placards at an anti-coal march. The publication said that the phrases “compromised” and “incapable of carrying out a review” are reported as direct quotes from the Adani spokeswoman.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter 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). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or unfair or unbalanced, 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 Council accepts that the Queensland Government informed the publication that the Hub would be responsible for carrying out the review and accordingly considers that in reporting that the Hub had been appointed the publication took reasonable steps to ensure accuracy and fair and balanced presentation of factual material. Given the nature and purpose of the Hub the Council considers the publication took reasonable steps to be accurate and fair and balanced in using the terms “greenies” and an “environmental group”.
The Council accepts that the Hub is a collaboration of research scientists engaged in issues of threatened species. The Council considers that the activities of some individual members of the Hub referred to in the article did not provide a reasonable factual basis for describing the Hub itself in the online headline as an “anti-coal group”. The Council considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the “anti-coal group” headline was accurate, not misleading and fair and balanced. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the Publication breached General Principles 1 and 3.
The Council notes that the terms “compromised” and “incapable of carrying out a review” are not presented as fact or comment by the publication but as direct quotations from the Adani spokesperson. However the publication did not contact the Hub for comment prior to publication and the Council considers that it was not reasonably fair and balanced to only present Adani’s perspective. In these circumstances the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure that Adani’s views of the Hub were presented with reasonable fairness and balance and breached General Principle 3.
As to remedial action the Council notes the later article, print correction, note to the online article and the complainant’s acceptance of these as reasonable in relation to correcting the substantial inaccuracy that the Hub itself had been appointed. Although the reference to “anti-coal group” in the online headline was inaccurate, the Council considers that given the views held by the publication it was reasonable for the publication to not publish a correction of it during the Council’s complaints process. As to providing a fair opportunity for subsequent publication of a reply, the Council considers there was some ambiguity in the nature of the complainant’s request and is not satisfied that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to provide a reply. Accordingly, the Council concludes the publication did not breach General Principles 2 or 4.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication)
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
- Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
- Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
- 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.
- 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.