The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article headed “Treasurer Chris Bowen’s lieutenant was the landlord at an illegal brothel” in The Sydney Morning Herald on 2 September 2013. It reported that before becoming Mayor of Fairfield in Western Sydney, Frank Carbone had been the landlord of a business that was said to have operated as a “massage parlour” in 2005. The article was published in the week leading up the federal election and included references to political developments affecting the area.
Mr Carbone complained the article incorrectly referred to the business as a “massage parlour” known as “Rainbow Healthy and Massages” but the name was “Rainbow Healthy and Beauty” and the nature of the business to which he, as landlord, consented in 2002 was a health and beauty salon which would also offer massages. He said he did not know about sexual services being offered, and the 2005 development applications for the business had not been made by him and his signature on them was forged. He said it was unfair to refer to him as the “landlord”, implying he was involved in running the business. He acknowledged Fairfield Council found that on two occasions the business offered sexual services, but said the business had then dismissed the two staff members involved.
Mr Carbone said he had explained these points to the reporter and had asked for time to consult Fairfield Council files on the next working day so he could respond more fully. He said after the article appeared he contacted the newspaper about the errors in the article, which should then have been corrected. He also complained that describing him as the Treasurer’s “key local lieutenant” incorrectly implied he was a senior figure in the Treasurer’s campaign.
The publication responded that the business had been known by different names, had publicly advertised Chinese massage, and had been found by the Fairfield Council to have offered sexual services. It denied the article implied Mr Carbone had been involved in running the business, and it pointed out the article included comments that he was unaware of what was happening at the business. The publication said the article did not refer to a particular letter in the Council files because Mr Carbone said it was a fake. The reporter did not recall him saying signatures on some development applications were forgeries. The publication said there were no inaccuracies in the article and Mr Carbone had declined its offer to publish a letter to the editor by him.
The publication said Mr Carbone told the reporter he would hand out how-to-vote cards for Mr Bowen in the last week of the federal campaign. It pointed out that after the article appeared, it had added to the online version a denial by Mr Bowen that Mr Carbone was a member of his campaign team.
The Press Council has concluded the publication did not take sufficient steps to ensure fairness to Mr Carbone when stating in the headline that “Treasurer Chris Bowen’s lieutenant was the landlord at an illegal brothel”. This description implied at least knowledge and acceptance of brothel operations. The headline does not reflect the first sentence of the article itself which said Mr Carbone was the landlord at “premises operating as” a brothel, and was followed immediately by his denial of having any knowledge of these operations. Accordingly, the complaint about this aspect of the headline is upheld.
The Press Council has concluded that describing Mr Carbone as “Treasurer Bowen’s lieutenant” in the headline and “a key local lieutenant of Treasurer Chris Bowen” in the first paragraph were both inaccurate and unfair. There was no evidence of any involvement in Mr Bowen’s campaign beyond an intention to distribute how-to-vote cards, which does not justify the term “lieutenant”, let alone “key local lieutenant”. The Council considered the publication should also have changed these aspects of the online version of the article, rather than just adding the comment by Mr Bowen. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is also upheld.
The Press Council has concluded the article’s references to the nature of the business complied with its requirements for accuracy and fairness. Fairfield Council documents established the premises had been used for “‘brothel’ purposes” at least on two occasions and there was evidence of the business having advertised massage services. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
The Council is unable to conclusively determine some matters relating to other aspects of the complaint and is not satisfied there was a sufficiently significant breach of its Standards for those aspects to be upheld. However, there may well have been good cause for further investigation before publishing the story, especially as it appeared only a few days before the federal election.
Note (not required for publication):
After publication of the article, both Fairfield Council and NSW Police confirmed development applications relating to Cr Carbone’s property appeared to include a forged copy of his signature.