The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published by the Herald Sun online on 19 November 2022, headed "Daniel Andrews’ chief of staff met with election fixer".
The article reported that “Daniel Andrews’ chief of staff has had direct contact with the election fixer who was caught boasting about rorting Victoria’s elections”. It reported that "Glenn Druery was exposed in a bombshell video, revealed by the Herald Sun on Thursday, boasting how he would ‘control’ who wins several key upper house seats in next week’s election – with ‘his’ MPs likely to share the balance of power.” It reported that “Mr Druery was also caught on film saying the ALP was happy not to reform the system he is rorting because he delivers the party a ‘crossbench they can work with’ in government.” The article went on to state that “Amid furore over the damning revelations, Mr Andrews on Thursday said: ‘I don’t believe I have ever met him, spoken to him, I don’t know him’. But the Herald Sun can reveal Mr Druery has had direct contact with Mr Andrews’ chief of staff, Lissie Ratcliff, during this term of government, and met with his office.”
In response to a complaint received, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article complied with the Council’s Standards of Practice, which require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1); to ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance and to ensure that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts (General Principle 3). The Council noted that the complaint raised concerns that the headline and article misleadingly and unfairly imply that Daniel Andrew’s chief of staff met with the “election fixer” in the context of the then upcoming Victorian election.
In response, the publication said the article and headline are entirely factual and accurate. The publication said it rejects the proposition that the headline unfairly and misleadingly suggests that Daniel Andrews chief of staff met with an election fixer in the lead up to the November 2022 Victorian election. The publication said there is one “fleeting” reference to the State election in the article, however it is clear from the sixth paragraph of the 31-paragraph article that the meeting was held in 2019. The publication said that undermining of the democratic process is a matter of enormous public interest, and that the article was one of a series of 3 produced by the publication that questioned the preference distribution system under the Victorian Electoral Act and whether it was being manipulated by so-called “preference whispers in return for a commercial fee”.
The Council recognises that the ability of headlines to accurately reflect the tenor of an article may vary in the circumstances and that an article’s initial paragraphs often establishes a more accurate position. The Council also recognises that what constitutes reasonable steps to ensure factual material is not misleading may also vary in the circumstances. However, the Council considers that publications need to take great care in order to satisfy the reasonable steps standard in the context of reporting on an election, which is a subject of significant public interest. In this instance, the Council considers that the clear implication of the headline is that the “election fixer” met with Daniel Andrew’s chief of staff in the context of the then upcoming Victorian election.
The Council also considers that given the article’s repeated references to the “election fixer” in the initial paragraphs followed by the revelation of the meeting with Mr Druery, the subsequent inclusion of Daniel Andrew’s denial of having met Mr Druery and his spokesman’s statement regarding the nature of Mr Druery’s meeting with the chief of staff, were insufficient to remedy this misconception. The Council considers that by referring to the “election fixer” in the headline and that the “election fixer” met with the chief of staff in the article, which was published immediately before an upcoming election, the publication failed to take steps to ensure factual material is not misleading in breach of General Principle 1.
The Council also considers, that by making repeated and prominent references to the “election fixer”, the article unfairly implied that Daniel Andrew’s office was involved in election fixing in the context of the then upcoming election. Accordingly, the Council concludes the publication failed to take reasonable steps to present factual material with reasonable fairness in breach of General Principle 3.
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.
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