The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint by Brisbane City Councillor Nicole Johnston about an article on the brisbanetimes.com.au website on 2 November 2011 headed Councillor Nicole Johnston evicted by police again.
Cr Johnston complained that the article incorrectly stated that she had been evicted from a meeting of the Brisbane City Council "after Cr Johnston accused [the Chair] of being corrupt". She denied using the word "corrupt" or alleging corruption, saying her criticisms were that the Chair’s handling of the matter was contrary to the City Council’s rules. She also complained that the article incorrectly stated she refused to apologise to another councillor at the meeting. She said her failure to apologise when asked several times by the Chair to do so was because she challenged the procedures being applied and she would have apologised when those matters had been resolved. She provided the "raw" (ie unedited) minutes of the meeting in which she said that she had been "fully intending to apologise today … . I will not ever because of what you have just done". The raw minutes record her as subsequently saying that another Councillor will table the apology she had been intending to make.
The website responded that a refusal to apologise was a legitimate description of her repeated failure to do so. It said the term corrupt was a fair description of her criticism of the Chair for "abuse of your powers as an independent chairperson". Its article had quoted the Chair as saying outside the meeting that Cr Johnston had called her corrupt. The website said that when contacted by Cr Johnston it promptly changed the article to say that the Chair evicted her "alleging Cr Johnston had accused her of being corrupt, a claim Cr Johnston denies". A few hours later it added quotes in which she denied alleging corruption and said her intention to apologise may have been unclear because she was not allowed to finish.
The Press Council concluded that the website was inaccurate in stating that Cr Johnston accused the Chair of being corrupt. Great care must be taken before stating that a person has made a serious allegation of that kind. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is upheld. The subsequent correction, and addition of quotes from Cr Johnston, was welcome but should have been made before the article was initially posted. The Council noted that readers were not alerted to the fact that the article had been changed. It believes that this practice should generally be followed and will promulgate Standards of Practice to that effect.
The Press Council concluded that the reference to her refusal to apologise was not so clearly inaccurate or unfair that this aspect of the complaint should be upheld. It would have been preferable, however, to refer also to her claim that she had intended to apologise although she would not now do so because of what she thought to be improper procedures.
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…."