The Press Council has considered a complaint by Margaret MacDonald-Hill about a series of articles in the Newcastle Herald relating to chairs of Community Consultative Committees (CCCs) and selection of arbitrators to preside over land access disputes between mining companies and landowners.
The first article headed “Mining dispute system faulted” was published on 10 April 2014 (print and online). It reported that Ms MacDonald-Hill worked as an arbitrator while being paid undisclosed amounts by mining companies to chair nearly a dozen CCCs. It quoted her comments about declaring appointments and not arbitrating disputes for companies for which she chairs CCCs. It also reported an instance where she had stood aside due to conflict of interest.
The second article “Consultation risks loss of faith – committee gravy train leaves no minutes” was published on 12 April 2014 in print (and under the headline “Consultation risks loss of faith” online on 11 April 2014). It reported on the issue of potential conflicts of interest. It mentioned Ms MacDonald-Hill in this context but did not give details of her work for CCCs or the payments she received.
The third article “Arbitration scrutiny” was published in print on 15 April (and online under the headline “Mining land dispute process in the spotlight” on 14 April). Its relevant content was similar to the first article.
Ms MacDonald-Hill complained that it was unfair for the articles to focus only on her because other chairs are also “high profile and act in multi capacities” and the articles did not mention there have never been any complaints from landholders. She said the unfairness was exacerbated by comments suggesting that she is either acting inappropriately or is not acting in the best interests of the parties, but nothing positive is said about her work.
She said the headline “Consultation risks loss of faith: Committee gravy train leaves no minutes” unfairly and inaccurately suggests that the chair of the committees (including her) are paid highly for minimal work and does not fairly reflect the tenor of the article, as the article does not mention anything about the level of payment to her. She also said the publication eventually agreed to publish a clarification but it was not published in the agreed position.
The publication said the articles were accurate, fair and balanced and related to matters of public interest about the CCCs. It said both sides of politics, lawyers and landholders had raised or investigated potential conflicts of interest in the CCC process.
It said the articles include positive material in quoting from her and the Department of Planning. It pointed out that it mentioned Ms MacDonald-Hill had stood aside on at least one occasion after a possible conflict had been raised. It said that when asked to disclose her level of payment she exercised her prerogative to decline. It also said it did not cause the delay in agreeing a clarification, which had then been published in accordance with the agreement.
The Council does not consider that it was unfair or unbalanced for one of the articles in particular to focus on Ms MacDonald-Hill as part of their examination of the system, especially as she chaired so many CCCs and her side of the issue was quoted. Accordingly that aspect of the complaint was not upheld.
The Council considers that the reference to a “gravy train” in the headline of the second article suggested she was paid highly for minimal work. It has concluded that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy, fairness and balance in this respect. Also, the headline did not fairly reflect the tenor of the article, which did not say anything about her level of payment or the nature and amount of the work she does. Accordingly the Council upholds these aspects of the complaint.
On the material available to the Council it is unable to resolve the issues around the delay in the correction or its placement.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies 4 of the Council’s Standards of Practice which at the relevant time read as follows: General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”, 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”, 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 by-lined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed, headlines and captions should fairly reflect the tenor of an article and readers should be advised of any manipulation of images and potential conflicts of interest”.