The Press Council has considered a complaint arising from a letter in the weekly newspaper, Myall Coast Nota, on 6 September 2012, a few days before local government elections. The letter was from a constituent opposing a pro-development view for the area, including what he called the “bigger than Forster” vision of Cr Len Roberts who was standing for re-election.
A journalist at the paper showed Cr Roberts the letter before it was published. He then sent her a letter for publication saying that he had never espoused the alleged vision. Rather, he had warned that the area could become “bigger than Forster” (a large nearby town) if all current development applications came to fruition. He also reminded her that she had previously acknowledged to him that his comments had been to this effect. Some six months earlier, the newspaper had published a letter from the same constituent making the same misrepresentation, and a similar letter of denial from Cr Roberts had been published.
Cr Roberts had asked that the newspaper to decline to publish the constituent’s later letter and that, if the letter was published, it be accompanied by his letter of denial or an “editor’s note” acknowledging the misrepresentation. The newspaper rejected these requests.
Cr Roberts then complained to the Press Council that publication of the constituent’s letter in the last edition before the election was unfair, especially as his refutation had not been published at the same time and the newspaper knew he had been misrepresented.
The newspaper responded that the constituent’s letter was expressing a personal view and readers would have been aware of Cr Roberts’ view due to the publication of his earlier letter. It said his second letter contained nothing new on the issue and was not in a publishable form, partly because it was defamatory. In any event, it said, publication in the same edition as the constituent’s letter would have shown bias towards Cr Roberts and was contrary to usual journalistic practice. It said Cr Roberts had not taken up an offer to publish his response in a later edition (which would have been after the election).
The Council has urged publications to be wary of causing unfairness by publishing critical material about an election candidate when there will be no opportunity to publish the candidate’s response before the election. Cr Roberts’ subsequent letter was in a form that would have needed editing before being reasonably publishable. But as the impending edition was the last before the election, and his previous letter had been published much earlier, the newspaper should have avoided unfairness by either declining to publish the constituent’s letter in that edition or seeking agreement with Cr Roberts on an edited version of his response to be published at the same time.
Accordingly, the complaint is upheld on the ground of lack of adequate fairness.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies 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.”
It also applies part of the Advisory Guideline on Reporting Elections: “The timing of material is [a] very important issue, especially for non-daily papers. Newspapers need to be wary about publishing material critical of candidates at a time when there would be no opportunity, before the election, for the candidate to supply a balancing response.”