The Press Council considered a complaint from Louise Milligan concerning an article published in The Australian headed “Greatest enemy of truth is those who conspire to lie” in print and online on 8 June 2021.
The article, an editorial, commented that “Many at the ABC express their displeasure at being held to account by The Australian. Forget that their own Media Watch has a leery obsession with News Corporation, some less thoughtful ABC journalists, and their flacks, one-time reporters who seem to have forgotten where they came from, decry any form of scrutiny”.
It said “Whether they like it or not, the ABC is one of the most powerful institutions in Australia. Not only does the national broadcaster pocket $1bn a year from our pay packets to produce great local radio, at times intoxicating drama and clever, original television, but much of that federal money is spent on journalism. In fact, the ABC, a wholly taxpayer-funded institution, is the biggest media outlet in Australia. The No.1 player in digital text and broadcast news, and awash on the airwaves of radio and television. The ABC is a behemoth. It is both the game and the gamekeeper.”
The editorial also said that “Many senior people at The Australian know well the work, the habits and the hubris of Sally Neighbour and Louise Milligan”. It went on to say “To be good you often need to be brash, and brave. But to be really good, you need to be beyond reproach. Your loyalty to the truth must be without question. Fairness and balance is your currency. It has to be. Think of the opposite qualities to answer why. The subjects of good journalism, of important journalism, lie and dissemble. Good journalists do not. They rely on the truth. They yearn for it. But they understand the limits. In many respects the natural enemy of a journalist, aside from a public relations hack, or a political flack, is the defamation lawyer. The most dangerous enemy of the journalist is bad, lazy, deceitful journalism.”
The complainant said the article implies that she conspires to lie, is the greatest enemy of the truth, lies and dissembles, is bad, lazy and deceitful, and that she has work habits and hubris which were well known by senior editorial people at The Australian. She said the language and the tone of the editorial are unequivocally intended to be read as criticism of her and leave no room for a conclusion other than that she is of low integrity and deserving of severe criticism based on the experience of senior people at the publication. She said that anyone reading the editorial would have concluded that it was alleging that she was not an example of a good journalist, but a bad, lazy and deceitful one who conspires to lie. The complainant said that such imputations were not only inaccurate and unfair, but that they have caused her significant offence and distress.
The publication said the target of the newspaper’s criticism is not the complainant. It said the headline, text and thread of the editorial’s argument is aimed at the institutional obstruction of media freedom and the need for good journalism to hold those in power, including politicians, business leaders and those running big institutions such as churches and universities, to account.
The publication said the reference to the complainant is limited to naming her in the context of the responsibilities of the ABC and the case for good journalism. The publication said there are no specific references to her work and no specific references to her reporting or conduct. The publication said however, that any reference to Ms Milligan would not have been read in isolation, as it was written in the context of separate news reporting about the ABC’s journalism and the complainant’s personal expressions through social media on the day and in the days leading up to the editorial.
The publication said these separate news reports highlighted the missteps made by the complainant and one other ABC journalist in tweets on the case of former attorney-general Christian Porter, who had been suing the ABC for defamation. It said the editorial is about the principles of journalism and how they should be applied, particularly by the publicly funded ABC.
The publication said that the overriding aim of the editorial is to promote the public interest of strong journalism and it raises the difficult position of the ABC, an important institution, which has the dual role as ‘the game and the gamekeeper’ and one which needs to be held to account.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable to 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 material refers adversely to a person a fair opportunity is to be given for a subsequent reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3 (General Principle 4). Publications must also take reasonable steps to avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6).
The Council recognises an editorial is the voice of a newspaper and for this reason, it is given significant latitude in expressing its views. Nonetheless, the Council notes that even in an editorial, a publication remains obliged to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is not misleading and is presented with reasonable fairness and balance. In relation to this, the Council notes the statement “Many senior people at The Australian know well the work, the habits and the hubris of … Louise Milligan” was presented as a statement of fact and not merely an expression of opinion.
Although the Council notes the publication’s comments that the editorial was not directed at the complainant, it considers that it is an unavoidable conclusion that she is associated with “bad, lazy, deceitful journalism” and that she ‘lies’ and ‘dissembles’ on the basis that she is specifically named in the article; that she is an ABC journalist; that she was once employed at The Australian and the critical comments concerning her alleged work, habits and hubris. For this reason, the Council considers the editorial, misleadingly and unfairly infers that such undesirable traits are associated with the complainant and her journalism. The Council notes that on the information before it, such an inference is not sustainable. Accordingly, the Council finds a breach of General Principles 1 and 3.
The Council notes that the complainant did not seek a right of reply. Accordingly, the Council finds no breach of General Principle 4.
The Council recognises the significant public interest in allowing an editorial to express robust views on matters of important public interest. However, the Council considers that naming the complainant, an ABC journalist in an editorial that commented on the ABC and what it considers are the attributes of poor journalism, was likely to cause substantial offence and distress without a sufficient public interest justification. Accordingly, the Council concludes that General Principle 6 was breached.
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.
- 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.
- 6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.