The Press Council considered a complaint from Mayor Teresa Harding concerning an article published in the Ipswich Tribune headed “OIA won’t investigate Harding” in print and online on 10 August 2022.
The article reported “THE Office of the Independent Assessor will not investigate complaints of misconduct against Ipswich Mayor Teresa Harding despite public outrage over her involvement in altering an officer’s report before it went to council for a vote. Councillors Nicole Jonic and Jacob Madsen have publicly criticised Cr Harding over the altered report on the re-naming of assets named after the Pisasale family, referring to the actions as ‘political interference’ and ‘questionable conduct’”.
The article went on to report that “The Ipswich Tribune has since revealed a version of the report with tracked changes from Cr Harding, initialled ‘TH’, rewriting the officer’s recommendations to the council and deleting references to community feedback asking council to leave the names as they were.” It reported that “The manager resigned from her position at council after CEO Sonia Cooper directed her to hand the Mayor’s version of the report to council”.
The complainant said the Office of the Independent Assessor (OIA) cleared her of any wrongdoing three weeks prior to the publication of the article in relation to the claim she had altered an officer’s report prior to its presentation to council. The complainant said the Local Government Act 2009 (the Act) encourages written feedback to the council’s CEO and that tracking changes is a common form of feedback. The complainant said any changes to the report were directed by the CEO and this was made clear in public meetings that are recorded and that are open to media scrutiny. The complainant said that despite the publication knowing that the manager referred to in the article was promoted to a more senior position in a different organisation, the article reported that she had resigned.
In response, the publication said it is incorrect to say that the complainant was cleared of wrongdoing as the OIA did not investigate the complaint. The publication said that questions were raised by councillors in a June 2022 meeting as to how the Mayor had access to the officer’s draft report. It said the complainant was not the document owner and should not have had access to the report to be making tracked changes before it was handed down to the councillors. The publication said it has copies of the emails from the officer who clearly stated her opposition to the changes and that the timing of her resignation followed these actions. The publication said while it had published several stories on this issue, the reporting has sought balance, has been well researched and was clearly in the public interest. The publication said it had provided the complainant with an opportunity to submit a letter to the editor on the issue which was not accepted.
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).
The Council accepts that on the information before it, the OIA investigated and then dismissed several complaints regarding the complainant’s conduct on the basis that the conduct did not raise a reasonable suspicion of inappropriate conduct or misconduct. The Council accepts the premise that the OIA’s decision to dismiss the complaints amounts to the complainant being cleared of wrongdoing.
The Council therefore considers that the article’s statement that the OIA “will not investigate complaints of misconduct against Ipswich Mayor Teresa Harding”, and the references to the ‘alteration of the report’ and the inclusion of quotes referring to the complainant’s conduct as “political interference” and “questionable conduct”, unfairly and misleadingly suggest the complainant was not investigated by the OIA and had acted inappropriately. The Council considers that on the information before it, such assertions are without factual basis. Accordingly, the Council finds the publication failed to take reasonable steps to comply with General Principles 1 and 3.
In the absence of independently verifiable information before it, the Council makes no finding concerning the article’s assertion that an officer resigned due to the complainant’s comments on the report.
Given the article’s unfair and misleading comments concerning the alteration of a report, and the complainant’s attempts to draw this to the publication’s attention, the Council considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to provide a correction or other remedial action in breach of General Principle 2.
The Council notes the publication’s offer of a letter to the editor in relation to the complainant’s concerns. 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.