The Press Council considered a complaint from Isaac Golden, the National Secretary and Victorian State President of the Health Australia Party about two articles published in The Age in November 2018. The articles were: “Micro-parties set to win big in Victorian election after vote swap” on 12 November 2018 in print and online and “Socialists, anti-vaxxers, taxi owners: your guide to the microparties” on 22 November 2018 online.
The first article described the Health Australia Party (the party) as “the anti-vaccination Health Australia” party in the body of the article. The second article referred to the party as “anti-vaxxers” in the headline and said the “party formerly known as the Natural Medicine Party claims it is not anti-vaxxer but opposes ‘no jab, no play’ laws aimed at increasing vaccination rates.” It also said the complainant “claims to be a world authority on ‘homeopathic immunisation’”.
The complainant said the Health Australia Party is not an anti-vaccination party. Anti-vaccination is not one of its policies and it denies having an anti-vaccination policy. He said the party’s opposition to the ‘No Jab No Play’ legislation does not mean it is anti-vaccination, only that it supports informed consent. He said that a number of respected medical organisations which he identified also oppose the No Jab No Play legislation and he noted that it has not been asserted that those organisations are anti-vaccination. He said the description of the party as “anti-vaccination” has arisen as a result of previous comments made on social media by a past party founding member concerning the party’s opposition to the No Jab No Play legislation. He reiterated that the party opposes that legislation not because it is anti-vaccination but because of freedom of choice. The complainant said that the current president of the party has never expressed anti-vaccination sentiment and has been quoted denying the party was anti-vaccination. He also said the title of the book written by him, “Vaccination and Homeoprophylaxis?: A Review of Risks and Alternatives”, did not suggest that he had anti-vaccination views.
The complainant said that following the first article, the party published a statement on its webpage stating the party was not anti-vaccination and that he also contacted the publication to complain about that description of the party and provided copies of these communications to the Council.
The complainant said that despite these steps, the headline of the second article referred to the party as “anti-vaccination” and the article implied incorrectly that he personally is anti-vaccination. As to the statement in the article that he “claims to be a world authority on ‘homeopathic immunisation’”, the complainant said he is invited to different countries by government agencies to advise doctors who use homeopathic immunisation.
The publication said that the description of the party as anti-vaccination was used because the party had previously been described by respected medical groups in that way and the publication was not aware the party rejected that description.
The publication said the journalist had checked the party’s policy when writing the article. The publication referred the Council to a number of paragraphs in the opening section of the party’s policy which it said implied that parents should have a right to refuse to vaccinate their children without any consequences and it said that therefore it was reasonable to describe the party as anti-vaccination.
The publication said that in combination with the party’s opposition to the No Jab No Pay legislation, its support for non-interventionist medical treatment and informed consent leaves it open to be characterised as anti-vaccination, particularly as its website and policies do not contain explicit statements to the contrary. The publication referred the Council to numerous previous social media exchanges involving the president of the party, which it said suggested that a number of persons who have been associated with the party have anti-vaccination views. It said the title of the complainant’s book did suggest he has strong views against vaccination. The publication said that the statement published on the party’s website after the first article was not completely clear as it did not explicitly state that the party supported vaccination.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to 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 unfair and 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 notes the publication’s journalist checked the party’s policy when writing the first article and the Council considers the paragraphs in the opening section of the party’s policy could imply that parents should have a right to refuse to vaccinate their children without any consequences. The Council notes that the previous social media exchanges referred to by the publication would appear to indicate at least that some people who have been associated with the party had anti-vaccination views. The Council has not been referred to any material published by the party prior to the first article specifically disputing that it was anti-vaccination. In the circumstances the Council considers that, in relation to the first article, the publication took reasonable steps to be accurate and not misleading and to express factual material with reasonable fairness and balance and did not breach the Council’s Standards of Practice.
As to the second article, the Council notes that by the time the second article was published the party had expressly asserted that it was not anti-vaccination and the article noted the party’s position in the article, but noted it opposed “No jab, No play” laws. While the Council considers that the party does favour homeopathic immunisation over vaccination, the headline in referring to the party as “anti-vaxxers” was inconsistent with the body of the article. On balance the Council considers that in describing the party in the headline in absolute terms as “anti-vaxxers”, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the headline was not misleading and was expressed with reasonable fairness and balance. Accordingly, the Council considers the publication breached General Principles 1 and 3. Given the issues involved and the positions of the complainant and the publication the Council considers there was no breach of General Principles 2 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.
1. 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.