The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint by the Council of the City of Casey about the coverage of it by the Sunday Herald Sun over an extended period. The city council cited eight articles between June 2011 and May 2012, including reports of the council's activities, specific investigations by the newspaper, editorial comment and opinion articles.
The city council said the newspaper’s coverage was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced. It complained that descriptions of it as being “Victoria's most dysfunctional Council", "Cowboy Council" and "bungle plagued" created a false impression. It also complained that the coverage included inaccurate assertions about an alleged council ban on kite-flying, use of capsicum spray at a council meeting, the council's participation in a local equestrian event, its expenditure on publicity, and the comparative level of its recent rate increases. It said the newspaper failed adequately to clarify these matters with it before publication.
The newspaper responded that it and other outlets had been reporting on problems with Casey Council since 2009, including allegations of sexual harassment and “secret" payouts. It had observed frequent disorder at council meetings, including attendance by police who threatened to use capsicum spray. These problems had led to three separate official investigations into the Council. It said that the city council had been asked frequently for comment, usually by written questions, and had a letter published recently. It said the city council was a public body and had been subjected to proper scrutiny and accurate reporting, and that it had not taken up offers to have the alleged inaccuracies corrected.
The Press Council has concluded that some of the facts alleged by the newspaper were incorrect and others unfairly negative. For example, the city council did not, as alleged, have the highest rate increase in Victoria in 2011 and capsicum spray was not actually used at a meeting. The newspaper provided only one side on a number of matters (including the reasons for the "horse-riding lessons" connected to the equestrian event and the nature of a bay cruise that was characterised as a "perk"). Taken together, the inaccuracies and the negative slant constituted a breach of the Council’s principles concerning fair and accurate reporting. In addition, the inclusion in a news story of phrases such as “most dysfunctional Council" and “Cowboy Council", being expressions of opinion, breached the Council’s principle that opinion should be clearly separated from fact. Accordingly, the complaint is upheld on those grounds.
The Press Council considers it is very important in the public interest that newspapers report on the activities of governments, public companies and other such institutions. In doing so, they are entitled to vigorously pursue issues, even to campaign, provided that they comply with the Council’s principles. In this case, there was no evidence of the kind of clear, major and sustained imbalance that would usually be necessary to constitute a breach of the principles relating to balance. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards
(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. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission”, General Principle 3: "Where individuals or groups are a major focus of news reports or commentary, the publication should ensure fairness and balance in the original article. Failing that, it should provide a reasonable and swift opportunity for a balancing response in an appropriate section of the publication" and General Principle 6: “Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed.”