The Press Council considered a complaint from Dr Christian Rowan, Queensland State Member for Moggill, and Shadow Minister for Education and The Arts about two articles published in the Brisbane Times, The Age, and The Sydney Morning Herald. The articles were headed “’Fake unions’: New associations ride jab mandate fears to get members” on 1 October 2021 and “Queensland LNP health spokeswoman is a member of ‘anti-COVID vax union’” on 2 October 2021 online.
The first article reported that a “set of ‘fake unions’ with links to current and former Liberal and National party figures are capitalising on anti-vaccination fears to recruit doctors, teachers and nurses and exploit dissent within the labour movement about mandatory vaccinations.” The article reported on the establishment of several professional associations, which were described as “fake unions”, including the Nurses Professional Association of Queensland (NPAQ). It reported that the secretary of the NPAQ, Aenghas Hopkinson- Pearson, was thanked by the “LNP education spokesman Christian Rowan in a speech last year for his work as the party’s state electorate council treasurer in Dr Rowan’s Queensland state seat of Moggill.”
The second article also reported that the NPAQ “secretary, Aenghas Hopkinson-Pearson, was thanked by Liberal National Party education spokesman Christian Rowan for his work on the executive of Dr Rowan’s state electorate committee.” The article further reported comments by Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath saying Dr Rowan was “associated with an organisation that had expressed ‘anti-vax views’”. The article went on to say that Dr Rowan, a “specialist physician before entering Parliament”, was “fully vaccinated against the coronavirus and encouraged Queenslanders to do the same.”
The complainant said the reporting of a link between him and the NPAQ was unfair and misleading. The complainant said he had thanked Aenghas Hopkinson-Pearson in the past for being a campaign volunteer only and that this was completely unrelated to any other roles or responsibilities Aenghas Hopkinson-Pearson may have had in other organisations. The complainant added that he had also thanked many other people as well. The complainant said he has never been a member of or had any role with the so-called “fake unions” mentioned in the articles. The complainant said that social media responses to the articles reveal that the general public had formed the view that he holds anti-vaccination views, which could be damaging to his professional reputation as a registered Specialist Physician, and as an elected representative. He said that publicly available information, including his parliamentary speeches in the Queensland Parliament and public social media posts record him identifying the importance of all eligible Australians being vaccinated against COVID-19. He also said the publications’ unnecessary reference to him in the first article led to the comments by the Queensland Health Minister in the second article which criticised him for being associated with NPAQ. In relation to the first article, he said he ought to have been contacted for comment.
The publications said it was accurate to report that the complainant had thanked Aenghas Hopkinson-Pearson for his work on a state electorate committee, part of the Liberal National Party (LNP) administrative machinery that selects candidates and aids their campaigns, in the complainant's seat. The publications said it was not in dispute that the complainant had thanked Aenghas Hopkinson-Pearson. They said there was no requirement to contact the complainant for comment before publication of the first article as it was reporting information from a speech the complainant made in Parliament and did not contain criticism of the complainant from anyone. They said the purpose of the comment was to demonstrate that the NPAQ and other “fake unions” had links to the LNP because it showed that Mr Hopkinson-Pearson had previously occupied a party position. Mr Hopkinson-Pearson was then and remains the secretary of NPAQ. The publications also said comments by the complainant were included in the second article when he was subject to criticism from the Queensland Health Minister. The publications said it was appropriate to report the remarks of the health minister during the national pandemic. The publications also said the second article reports that the complainant is in favour of vaccination, that he encourages others to get vaccinated, that he himself is fully vaccinated and that he condemns anyone who undermines the vaccination efforts. The publications also said that being associated with an organisation does not mean that a person agrees with that organisation’s views. The publications said the articles do not imply that the complainant holds anti-vax views. They said the purpose of the comment was to demonstrate that the NPAQ and other “fake unions” had links to members of the LNP.
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 or unbalanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide a correction or other 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).
The Council notes that the articles concern the reported links between current and former LNP members to organisations whose membership includes individuals who hold anti-vaccination views. In this context of exploring “fake union” links to the LNP, the Council considers that by including comments that the complainant had once thanked Mr Hopkinson-Pearson for his work on an LNP electoral committee, the articles misleadingly imply the complainant has an association with NPAQ. In relation to this, the Council notes the critical comments of the Queensland Health Minister in the second article saying that the complainant and one other Member of Parliament were associated with an organisation that held “anti-vax” views. The Council accepts that both articles contained factual information but on the material before it, the complainant could not be said to have an association with NPAQ. Accordingly, General Principle 1 was breached. The Council also notes that in relation to the first article, the complainant was not provided with an opportunity to comment. The Council considered that the reference to the complainant was unnecessary and not reasonably fair in the context of articles exploring LNP links to “fake unions”. Accordingly, General Principle 3 was breached.
As to corrective or remedial action, the Council considers the articles are significantly misleading. While the Council acknowledges the second article included comments from the complainant confirming his support for Covid-19 vaccinations and condemning organisations that undermine vaccination efforts, the Council does not consider that this constituted adequate remedial action for the implication that the complainant has an association with NPAQ. Accordingly, General Principle 2 was breached in this respect. The Council notes the complainant was offered an opportunity to comment in relation to the second article. Accordingly, the Council finds no breach of General Principle 4. This finding is not inconsistent with the finding of a breach of General Principle 2, as General Principle 4 imposes a different and separate obligation.
Relevant Council Standards
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.