The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint about a series of articles in The Australian in February 2013. They were headed "Environmental ‘failings’ spark port probe as dolphins depart" and "Marine life pays for a waterway under stress" (both on 16 February), "Harbour environment monitoring queried" (18 February) and "Heritage area harbour firms self-assessed" (25 February).
The articles reported concerns about dredging in Gladstone Harbour and impacts on marine life in the area, as well as the effectiveness of environmental monitoring by Gladstone Ports Corporation (GPC). The first article reported a claim by an animal welfare organisation that GPC had breached legal requirements to arrange independent audits of its monitoring, and that the Federal Environment Minister had ordered his Department to investigate. The final article reported the Minister’s later announcement that there was no breach as GPC was allowed to self-assess compliance.
GPC complained about the words “environmental ‘failings’” in a headline and the references to alleged breaches of the audit requirements. It said the audit issue was mentioned only briefly in the journalist’s lengthy interview with GPC’s chief executive before publication, and that its media adviser received no response when he emailed the journalist seeking detail of any concerns about the matter. It said the publication should have promptly and prominently corrected its references to audit breaches after being told they were wrong.
GPC also complained that the articles inaccurately and unfairly blamed harbour dredging for the sickness and death of marine life, given that a government report had said recent flooding was the probable cause. It also complained about suggestions it had “covered up” evidence when responding to government inquiries.
The publication said it had accurately and fairly reported claims about the audit requirements, GPC’s rejection of the claims, and the Minister’s eventual endorsement of that rejection. It acknowledged the journalist should preferably have responded to the media adviser’s email but said that, having spent considerable time researching the story and speaking to GPC, he felt he had all the information he required.
It said GPC knew at the time its chief executive was interviewed that the journalist was looking into the claims by the animal welfare organisation, and GPC had directed the journalist to material on its website without warning it included an erroneous statement that the audits must be independent. It said if GPC had serious concerns about the issue, there had been ample opportunity in the two days before publication of the first articles for the media adviser to follow up his email to the journalist.
The publication said all four articles reported flooding as a possible cause of the harm to marine life, and it had reported comments from a range of sources on the issue. It said the word ‘failings’ had been placed in inverted commas to indicate it was merely a source’s allegation, not a claim by the publication itself. The claim of a “cover up” had clearly been made by two local people whom GPC said were exaggerating the impact of dredging to boost their compensation claims.
The Council’s Standards require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy, fairness and balance. This was met in relation to the reports of allegations about audit breaches and the responses by GPC. It was reasonable to wait for the outcome of the Environment Department’s investigation into whether there had been a breach, at which point the publication reported the Minister’s explanation.
The journalist should have responded to GPC’s email seeking further details about the audit concerns, but the email did not convey substantial concern on the matter. Also, it was reasonable to expect GPC to pursue a response, especially as it had information which helped to explain why the incorrect claims had been made.
The Council considers the journalist took reasonable steps to ensure accuracy and fairness when reporting the various claims about effects of dredging on marine life, and did not unfairly report the claims of a “cover up”.
Accordingly, the complaint is not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced.” 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”.