The Press Council considered a complaint from Curtis Pitt, Speaker of the Queensland Parliament concerning an article published by the Courier Mail, headed “Activists in court is a terrible look” in print and online on 1 February 2023.
The article, an editorial, commented that “In May 1992, the Goss cabinet approved legislation to give Queenslanders the formal right to public protest. The accompanying announcement said the change was a critical part of the Fitzgerald process. Labor premier Wayne Goss declared: ‘Governments who try to restrict the right of the people to freedom of expressions are governments scared of scrutiny. This government is not.’” It went on to say that “In November 2022, Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk reinterpreted that freedom, telling parliament: ‘People have the right to protest silently in public.’ She followed that extraordinary statement by encouraging her Speaker Curtis Pitt to criminally prosecute a group of Extinction Rebellion protesters – most aged over 50 and a number of them grandmothers – who had interrupted proceedings of parliament for three minutes.”
The editorial said that “Sending a clear message that this protest was the wrong thing to do is therefore appropriate. But the response should be proportionate. Nobody was hurt. There was no property damaged. And the entire disruption lasted for a total of three minutes. Charging the protesters with the criminal offence of disturbing the legislature is a punishment that clearly does not fit the crime. Considering our state’s political history, that this was done at the behest of a Labor Premier is troubling.”
The complainant said it is inaccurate to suggest he charged the protestors at the “behest” of Premier Palaszczuk or that she requested or urged that the protestors be charged. The complainant said the comment by the Premier made in parliament that “People have the right to protest silently in public, and I endorse that, but there are rules in this chamber. I will leave that for you to reflect on, Mr Speaker” suggests that there is an important role and function that the Speaker independently performs in maintaining order in the Parliamentary Precinct. He said that he exercises the role of Speaker independent of party politics and that he does not follow any instructions from parliamentarians. The complainant also said that he did not lay the criminal charges as the editorial suggests. He also said the police did so after a request from him and only after their independent assessment, did they consider such charges were warranted. The complainant said the general tenor of the editorial was that he acted as a mouthpiece of a government punishing protestors.
In response, the publication said the general tenor of the editorial was that Mr Pitt's actions had resulted in rarely used charges being laid against a group of protestors who were doing nothing more than exercising their right to freedom of speech in relation to government and politics. The editorial did not say the Premier directed the Speaker to take action or that she gave instructions to him. The publication said any reasonable reading of the Premier’s statement in parliament would suggest she encouraged Mr Pitt to criminally prosecute a group of protesters.
It said that while it agrees that the Speaker is independent, this does not mean he cannot be encouraged by members of parliament to make a decision. It also said that the editorial does not state that Mr Pitt charged the protestors. It said the story which the editorial is commenting on, and which is hyperlinked in the editorial, makes it clear the charges were laid by Queensland police. The publication said, however, that had Mr Pitt not made his complaint to the police, the charges against the protestors would not have been laid at all. That is the criminal prosecution to which the editorial refers.
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 recognises the public interest in allowing editorials to express robust views on matters of significant public importance, as in this case. Nonetheless, the Council has consistently stated that even in opinion articles, such as 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. Although the Council does not consider the editorial suggests the complainant charged the protestors, the comment that the referral of the protesters to police was done at the “behest” of the Premier was presented as a statement of fact and inaccurately and unfairly suggests the complainant acted on the Premier’s instructions. The Council notes that the Speaker is required to discharge his duties with impartiality. The Council considers that there is an absence of information to suggest that the Speaker did not act independently, and thus failed to act in accordance with his duty of impartiality, when referring the protesters to the police. Accordingly, the Council finds a breach of General Principles 1 and 3.
As to General Principles 2 and 4, the Council notes the absence of a request for correction or other remedial action by the complainant. Accordingly, the Council finds no beach of General Principles 2 and 4.
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.