The Press Council considered a complaint from Jordan Shanks-Markovina about an article published by The Daily Telegraph on 21 September 2020 headed “Friendlyjordies: Labor members concerned by leader’s links to YouTube star” online; and “Labor Leader’s Controversial New Friend” in print.
The article stated “Labor MPs have expressed concern about leader Jodi McKay engaging with controversial YouTube star Friendlyjordies, suggesting it was “risky” to be associated with someone who has made controversial statements about mental health and sexual assault.” The article reported comments from an unnamed Labor source that stated “[i]t’s just risky, you don’t need to take that risk”, and referred to comments made by then NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, stating “I have heard that he has made inappropriate and racist comments about a number of people and I think that’s completely unacceptable.” The article also reported that “Shanks did not respond to written questions last night. In a subsequent phone conversation, his assistant criticised this reporter, before Shanks claimed he did not have access to the questions sent by The Daily Telegraph.”
The complainant said that he was not given a fair opportunity to respond to the allegations against him and that the questions put to him by the publication were leading, unfair and impossible to answer within the confines of a quarter-page article. He said that questions regarding his “controversial statements about mental health and sexual assault” were based on comments he had made during an hour-long podcast, that had been deliberately taken out of context and stripped of any nuance. He said another of the publication’s questions, about whether his impersonation of a particular politician was ‘racist’, had already been addressed by him publicly in a ten-minute video on his YouTube channel. The complainant said certain adverse references to him in the article were not specifically put to him by the publication, including the comments of the unnamed Labor source and Gladys Berejiklian.
The complainant also said he was given inadequate time to respond to the journalist’s questions. He said the questions were sent to him via Twitter and an email account designed for tip-offs by the public. He received the questions on a Sunday evening and was given less than an hour and a half to respond. The complainant said it was completely unreasonable for him to see and respond to the journalist’s message in that timeframe.
The complainant added that it was inaccurate to report that he “did not respond to written questions … [and] … claimed he did not have access to the questions.” He said in a subsequent telephone conversation, recorded by the complainant, the journalist was asked to put questions to him verbally but did not. The complainant said he could not access the journalist’s questions digitally while recording the telephone conversation. The complainant said he preferred for the interview to be conducted by telephone as he wanted to gauge the journalist’s intentions and considered there was a greater risk of any written responses being taken out of context.
The complainant also said the publication did not adequately disclose the journalist’s conflict of interest and suggested that the story had been written at the behest of a senior NSW Coalition member.
In response, the publication said it put a series of questions to the complainant via email and Twitter following the publication of an earlier article in another publication which raised similar issues. It said its questions were based on public comments by the complainant which had been previously reported by other publications and circulated widely on social media; a tweet sent by the Friendlyjordies twitter account in which he told another user to “produce some serotonin and then get a job”; and an earlier story published by The Daily Telegraph on 21 June 2020 headed “YouTube funnyman in hot water over mocking accents of Gladys Berejiklian, John Barilaro.” It also said the comments attributed to Gladys Berejiklian had been made at a press conference earlier that morning. It said the complainant was given the opportunity to respond to the questions as posed.
The publication said on the Sunday in question the Friendlyjordies Twitter account had been actively tweeting and the questions were not deliberately difficult to see, as the complainant suggested. The questions were also emailed to the complainant via an email address to which he invites correspondence. In relation to the subsequent telephone conversation, the publication said the journalist ascertained that he was being recorded for the purposes of uploading to the Friendlyjordies YouTube channel, but nevertheless asked the complainant multiple times if he wished to respond to the written questions as posed via email and Twitter. The publication said nowadays it is commonplace for interviews to be conducted by email and/or Twitter. It also said if the complainant had simply answered the questions, his responses would have been included in the article.
The publication said the article did not arise as a result of any improper relationship between the publication and a NSW Coalition member, and that there was no evidence to support this contention.
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 is 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 if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach (General Principles 2 and 4). Publications must also take reasonable steps to ensure that conflicts of interests are avoided or adequately disclosed, and that they do not influence published material (General Principle 8).
The Council accepts that, based on the material before it, the factual material in the article reflects comments made by a Labor Party source and by Gladys Berejiklian. Accordingly, General Principles 1 and 2 were not breached.
In relation to General Principle 3, the Council does not accept that the complainant could not access the questions posed by the journalist. The Council notes that the apparent inability to access the questions was solely due to the complainant’s own actions and not that of the publication. However, the Council considers the article’s comment that the complainant “did not respond to written questions” was an unfair characterisation of the communications between him and the publication. The Council also notes that the questions as posed lacked necessary context and could not have been fairly answered by the complainant given the deadline provided. In relation to the comments made by then Premier Gladys Berejiklian, which called into question whether the complainant had in the past made ‘inappropriate’ and ‘racist’ comments, the publication was required to provide him with an opportunity to respond to those comments specifically. Accordingly, the General Principle 3 was breached in these respects.
As the complainant did not seek a subsequent right of reply, General Principle 4 was not breached.
The Council is satisfied that given both the absence of evidence and the routine and accepted journalistic practice of using confidential sources, that the article was not a result of an improper relationship between the journalist and a politician. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principle 8.
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.
8. Ensure that conflicts of interests are avoided or adequately disclosed, and that they do not influence published material.