The Press Council considered a complaint from Senator Gerard Rennick concerning an article published by The Australian online on 11 August 2022, headed “Anti-vax Liberal senator Gerard Rennick refused briefings from Greg Hunt”.
The article reported that “Liberal senator Gerard Rennick, who has been criticised for spreading misinformation and Covid-19 conspiracy theories, turned down multiple invitations for individual briefings from former health minister Greg Hunt.” It said “Senator Rennick was offered several one-on-one sessions with Mr Hunt, as well as Health Department Deputy Secretary and Therapeutic Goods Administration boss Adjunct Professor John Skerritt, since the start of the pandemic. However, these standing invitations were never taken up.” The article went on to report that “It’s understood that the TGA has responded to a large number of questions about vaccine safety from Senator Rennick in budget estimates, Covid committee hearings and personal correspondence.”
The complainant said that it is false and misleading to say that he declined meetings with health officials. The complainant said that no meetings were ever offered to him, and that he never declined any meetings or briefings with the then Health Minister or health officials. The complainant said that he did meet with the then Minister of Health or his staff and had also had two telephone conversations with the head of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). The complainant also said that prior to the article’s publication, he was not contacted for comment and, despite informing the publication after publication that he never declined meetings, no amendment was made to correct the article at the time.
In response, the publication said that it has evidence that offers of meetings were made to the complainant by the head of the TGA, who is also Deputy Secretary of The Department of Health. The publication said that the head of the TGA offered briefings to the complainant during Senate Estimates and Covid-19 committee hearings and through the former Health Minister’s office. It said that subsequent to the article’s publication, the complainant asked the Department of Health directly about the briefings mentioned in the article the subject of the complaint.
The publication said that the Department of Health’s answer to the complainant makes clear that a range of departmental officers offered the complainant briefings and that the reason for not taking up the meetings may lie with the former Health Minister’s office or with the complainant. The publication said that soon after publication it offered the complainant an opportunity to include in the article remarks refuting the claims, however he declined. It said that it subsequently amended the article to include the complainant’s denial that he declined meetings.
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 is 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 to 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 accepts that based on the information before it, the complainant was offered briefings by a range of senior officers from the Department of Health, including the head of the TGA. The Council also notes the publication’s reference to Question on Notice, that was provided after publication of the article, which confirms that the complainant was offered briefings. However, while the Council accepts that such offers were made, there is no information before it to suggest that the complainant actively ‘refused’ or ‘turned down’ these offers. The Council notes that ‘refusing’ or ‘turning down’ an offer would require a specific response to an offer, which the Council notes is absent from the material before it. Accordingly, the Council considers that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to be accurate and not misleading in breach of General Principle 1.
The Council notes that soon after the article was published, the publication offered to amend the article to include the complainant’s denial that he refused offers of briefings. The Council notes however, that the article was not amended until sometime after publication and only after a complaint was lodged with the Press Council. Given the reference to the complainant refusing health department briefings 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 to include his denial was not accepted by the complainant, and also that the publication subsequently amended the online article. However, the Council emphasises the obligation under General Principle 2 to provide a correction or other adequate remedial action is unqualified, and should have been made when the inaccuracy was identified.
The Council considers that given the article specifically concerned the complainant, it was incumbent on the publication to seek comment from the complainant prior to publication regarding the offers of meetings. The Council considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to present the material with the fairness and balance in breach of General Principle 3.
The Council considers the publication’s prompt offer to amend the article and include his comments refuting the assertion that he was offered meetings, was an adequate response in the circumstances. 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.