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The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article entitled “Liberal candidate threatens Facebook users over satirical article” which was posted in the technology section of the website of The Sydney Morning Herald (www.smh.com.au) on 9 May 2012.
The article related to Andrew Nikolic, the Liberal Party candidate for the Tasmanian electorate of Bass in the 2013 Federal election. It said Mr Nikolic had “named and shamed” Facebook users who had posted comments on a page called New Examiner supporting satirical material about him on that page and he had also threatened to contact their employers. It quoted words to this effect which it said had been posted by Mr Nikolic on his own Facebook page. It also reported his claim to the SMH that because he had already deleted the post he could not confirm whether the quote was accurate.
The article said Mr Nikolic had “reneged on the threats after initially denying to [the SMH journalist] that he had even made them”. It quoted him as saying to the journalist that he had no intention of contacting employers and his request had always been for removal of the material. It quoted criticisms of him by the editor of the New Examiner whom it said was known only under the pseudonym Martin Gaylord.
Mr Nikolic complained the article was inaccurate and unfair because he had not denied threatening to take action, only that he had intended to carry it out. He said the SMH article should have mentioned his explanation that he could not confirm the accuracy of the screenshot from which the article had quoted his threat because it could have come from another Facebook account which he knew had been falsely created in his name. He had not publicly disclosed any more detail about the Facebook users than was on the profiles linked with their remarks. He had removed his own post because several of these people had apologised after he wrote to them about his concerns.
Mr Nikolic also complained the article was unfair because it did not report or investigate his claim that the editor of the New Examiner was a political opponent, whom he named. He said he had told the SMH journalist about this person. He also said the SMH should have reported his claim that many of the Facebook users were political activists.
The Sydney Morning Herald responded that Mr Nikolic had explicitly denied to its journalist that he had made the threat. It claimed he had not mentioned the false Facebook account and the journalist had no good reason to doubt the authenticity of the screenshot. It also claimed Mr Nikolic had not mentioned the political activities of the editor of the New Examiner and, although it had some evidence to suggest the person named by Mr Nikolic was the editor, it had not confirmed the claim. It also said he had not mentioned the alleged political activities of the Facebook users.
The SMH offered to annotate the archived version of the online article with a detailed indication of Mr Nikolic’s disagreements with it and, subject to him providing conclusive evidence, of the involvement of the editor of the New Examiner and as a political opponent. Mr Nikolic rejected the offer on the principal ground that the Herald itself should take responsibility for establishing the relevant facts.
The Council’s discussions with Mr Nikolic and the journalist have led it to conclude that Mr Nikolic’s recall of the relevant communications between them is likely to be accurate. It appeared that the importance of the distinction between making a threat and intending to carry out that threat was not adequately recognised by the journalist. It is the imputation that Mr Nikolic had lied in this respect which had led to his complaint.
The potential significance of the actual identity of Martin Gaylord also was not adequately recognised by the journalist, even though he had good reason to suspect the identity and to investigate whether it should affect the way in which to report the story. This applies especially to the decision to include a strongly-worded quotation from an undisclosed person.
Accordingly, the Council upholds the complaint on the grounds that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy and fairness in these respects. The Council also is concerned that the journalist told Mr Nikolic “the New Examiner has refused to comment” but then included its comment in the article. It does not consider, however, that there was any need for the journalist to explore and report upon the political activities of the Facebook users. The Council notes that the SMH is now willing to acknowledge on its archived copy of the article the accuracy of Mr Nikolic’s claims about the involvement of the editor of the New Examiner.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”.