The Press Council considered a complaint from Josh Bornstein concerning an article published by The Australian on 14 February 2022, headed “Josh Bornstein rekindles attack on ‘bonk ban’” online, and “Bornstein rekindles attack on ‘bonk ban’” in print on 15 February 2022.
The article reported that “Would-be Labor senator Josh Bornstein savaged moves by the federal Coalition to introduce measures designed to limit the chance of ministers sleeping with staff.” The article went on to state that “Mr Bornstein argued that then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s so-called bonk ban was a ‘panicked and irresponsible’ response to the office scandal that engulfed Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. This was after Mr Joyce had an affair with his then staffer Vikki Campion, resulting in the end of his marriage.” The article also included comments from Mr Bornstein saying: “I stand by my long record of helping women address gender inequality. I have always highlighted the need for a proper legal framework to underpin efforts to keep workplaces free from bullying and harassment, and my 2018 commentary was emphasising this very point.”
The complainant said the headline and the article misleadingly suggest he had repeated comments made in an article penned for another publication in 2018. The complainant said he has not repeated the comments he made in 2018. The complainant also said the article did not include his full response to questions asked of him by the journalist prior to publication and the comments that were included did not fairly reflect the comments he made.
In response, the publication accepted that the word “rekindles” in the headline was not accurate and said to resolve the complaint it promptly offered to amend the headline of the online article and to also publish a correction of the headline in print. The publication said an amended online headline would remove the word “rekindles” and would make it clear the article is referring to the complainant’s past position on the Turnbull government's 2018 proposal. It also said it would add the year 2018 to the lead paragraph of the online article, instead of where it is currently mentioned in the third paragraph, to ensure that readers understood that the complainant’s criticism of the Turnbull government's proposal took place in the past. The publication said, in relation to publishing the complainant’s response in full, that it would not routinely do so. It said it is the role of journalists and editors to distil and edit material to bring relevant facts to readers. The publication said it included relevant aspects of the complainant’s response and summarised his other point. It also said it offered the complainant an opportunity to write a letter to the editor to further expand on his views.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material in news material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1), and presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinions are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts (General Principle 3). They also require publications take reasonable steps to provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading (General Principle 2) and provide an opportunity for a response to be published by a person adversely referred to (General Principle 4).
The Council notes the publication’s acceptance that the use of the word “rekindles” in the headline is inaccurate. The Council also notes that on the material before it, there is no suggestion that the complainant had repeated the comments he made in an article in 2018 concerning a government proposal. The Council further notes that the article’s opening sentence adds to the misconception that the complainant’s comments are contemporary. The Council considers that in stating that the complainant had rekindled his attack on a past government proposal, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to be accurate and not misleading. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 1.
The Council notes that in resolution of the complaint, the publication offered to amend the online article and to publish a correction in print when it was notified of the complaint by the Press Council. The Council notes however, that at the time of the Adjudication Panel hearing, the online article remained uncorrected, and the print correction had not occurred. Given the reference to the complainant rekindling his attack on a government proposal is significantly inaccurate and misleading and remained uncorrected for some time, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to provide a correction or other remedial action. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 2.
The Council recognises the publication’s offer of a correction was not accepted by the complainant, and also that the publication subsequently corrected the online article. However, the Council emphasises the obligation under General Principle 2 to provide a correction is unqualified, and should have been made when the inaccuracy was identified.
In relation to the complainant’s comments in response to being contacted by the journalist, the Council acknowledges there is no obligation on the publication to publish his comments in full and it is not standard practice to do so. The Council considers the complainant’s comments included in the article were a fair and reasonable summation of his criticisms of the publication and his views on assisting women in the workplace. Accordingly, the Council concludes the publication did not breach General Principle 3.
The Council considers the publication’s offer of a letter to the editor in relation to the complainant’s views on assisting women in the workplace to address gender inequality was an adequate response. Accordingly, the Council concludes the publication did not breach 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.