The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint by Paul Fletcher MP about a four-page supplement on the National Broadband Network (NBN) in The Sydney Morning Herald on 23 April 2012.
The supplement was physically separate from the other parts of the newspaper. On the top of the first page, against a red background, it had a very prominent heading “UPDATE ON THE NBN” above which the words “SPECIAL REPORT” appeared in small letters. It was followed by a colourful graphic which occupied the remainder of the top half of the page. A prominent blue banner ran across the top of the next two pages with the very prominent heading “UPDATE ON THE NBN” and the words “SPECIAL REPORT” in small letters. All advertising in the supplement was by Optus, appearing on each of the first three pages and all of the fourth page.
The first article was headed “A nation on the broadband wagon: With a third of the country due to be covered by the National Broadband Network within three years, Australians are waking up to its potential”. It and the other material provided some basic information about the NBN and also focused to a considerable extent on what were described unequivocally as substantial benefits for a wide range of consumers.
Mr Fletcher complained that if the supplement was meant to be news reporting it should have provided due balance by mentioning concerns about the efficacy of the NBN (eg, in relation to costs and delay) rather than just uncritically alleging benefits which, in fact, may not eventuate or are not unique to NBN. If the supplement was meant to be merely advertising or promotional material, and therefore not necessarily balanced, this should have been made clearer to readers.
The newspaper said the supplement was not “advertorial” or promotional material, as it had been conceived by the newspaper itself and then advertising space had been offered to several potential advertisers. It said the supplement had been prepared in accordance with normal editorial standards and without external intervention.
The newspaper said the words and style of the page headings, especially the words “UPDATE” and “SPECIAL REPORT”, clearly labelled the supplement as a consumer-focused, fair and factual guide to the NBN rollout and what consumers were either already experiencing or could expect from high-speed internet. It said this message was also conveyed by the first sentence of the leading article, which read: "If one looks beyond the technical deals and the political skirmishing, for most consumers there are two main questions about the NBN: when do we get it and what will we do with it when we do finally connect?"
The Council has concluded that as the supplement was not labeled as advertising material, and the newspaper acknowledges full responsibility for its preparation and presentation, the Council’s usual principles for news reports must be applied. These principles require, amongst other things, that reasonable steps are taken to provide balance.
Where a collection of reports covers the same topic, the requirement to achieve reasonable balance within the collection as a whole is likely to be greater than if the coverage consists of only one brief article. The requirement is greatly reduced, however, if the collection is adequately identified as an uncritical or promotional presentation or as not seeking to provide objective analysis or a balanced coverage of issues and views. The Council considers that without an adequate identification of this kind of limited purpose, the supplement would be in breach of the Council's principles relating to balance.
The use of the words "Special Report" did not assist substantially to provide such identification as they do not clearly and prominently convey the requisite message. They can reasonably be interpreted as promising rigorous investigation and analysis and, indeed, are often used for precisely that purpose.
However, the combined impact of the supplement's physical separation from the remainder of the newspaper and the overall appearance and wording of the graphic effects and headings on the first three pages did make it distinctively different from the usual "news and comment" pages of the newspaper. On balance, therefore, the Council has concluded that the supplement did not constitute a breach of its principles. Accordingly, the complaint is not upheld.
The Council emphasises, however, that there is a substantial risk of breaching those principles unless supplements of this kind prominently display an explanation of their limited purpose. This could involve an unequivocal branding such as "Promotional Supplement" and/or a prominent box at the beginning of the supplement which clearly explains the limited purpose. There should also be a prominent disclosure of any vested interests which have funded any supplement or written some of it. This requirement is also necessitated by the Council's principles about conflicts of interest.
In order to assist compliance in relation to special supplements of this and other kinds, the Council will develop Specific Standards of Practice after consultation with the media industry and the broader community.
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Mr Fletcher also identified what he saw as two incorrect dates in the articles. The errors were relatively minor and the newspaper corrected them in its usual Corrections space on page two on the day after the Council conveyed Mr Fletcher’s concerns to it. As the errors were not of major significance, the Council has concluded that the inconspicuous mode of correction was sufficient in this instance. But it emphasises that greater prominence would be required where errors are of substantial importance.
Relevant Council Standards
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This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission" and General Principle 2: “Where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence.”