The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint by Fast Access Finance Pty Ltd about a report in The Sydney Morning Herald on 19 November 2011, headed A stronger hand needed to stop debt traps.
The report concerned a decision by the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) that a short-term loan arrangement between the company and a young couple exceeded the 48% maximum interest rate permissible under Queensland law. The company had argued that the arrangement was not a loan but a purchase of diamonds from one company followed by a sale of them to another company. The Tribunal however found that "the characterisation of the transaction in that manner is so highly unlikely, improbable and implausible as to be a complete fiction".
Fast Access Finance complained that the report could prejudice its appeal against the decision, which might be heard by a non-judicial member of the tribunal. It said the report incorrectly asserted the couple was "required" to repay $98 per week and that their lawyer said this amounted to more than 300% interest. It also complained that the report said it had argued the arrangement was a contract for sale and purchase of diamonds, yet the basis of its argument was there were two distinct contracts with different companies. It claimed two other statements in the article inaccurately described the couple’s behaviour and the tribunal’s findings. It complained that the newspaper reported comments made after the decision by the couple’s lawyer but did not approach it for comment.
The newspaper replied it was entitled to report an open hearing and decision of a tribunal, irrespective of whether an appeal is pending and of whether it may be heard by a non-judicial member of the tribunal. It said the matters complained of in the report were accurate and fair descriptions of material in the tribunal’s decision and of the findings which were made. It said it did not seek comment from either party before publication although it quoted a media release by the couple’s lawyer.
The Press Council concluded that the report of a tribunal proceeding while an appeal is pending is normal practice and the possibility of the appeal being heard by a non-judicial member does not justify suppression of the report for fear of prejudice. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
The Council concluded that the newspaper's assertion that the company had described its arrangement with the couple as being a single contract was incorrect (albeit not a description which was accepted by the Tribunal). Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint was upheld.
The Council did not consider that the other matters complained about by the company were inaccurate or unfair descriptions of statements to and by the tribunal. Accordingly, those aspects of the complaint are dismissed.
The Council considered that, while it might have been desirable to seek comment from the company, the newspaper’s failure to do so in this context did not constitute a breach of its Standards of Practice.
The Council noted that, in addition to print and online publication by The Sydney Morning Herald in the usual way, this adjudication should also be posted on the website of The Age, Melbourne (where the original report had also appeared).
Note (not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies part of the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced… ” and Principle 5: "Information obtained by dishonest or unfair means, or the publication of which would involve a breach of confidence, should not be published unless there is an over-riding public interest."