The Press Council considered a complaint by the National Electrical and Communications Association (NECA) about two articles published in the print and online editions of The Australian on 9 September 2014, headed “A dirty deal that sold members down river” and another article on 27 September 2014, headed “Employers do the heavy lifting, unions count their luck”.
Suresh Manikam of NECA complained that the articles were inaccurate and misleading in saying that NECA “received secret commissions” and had “forced” or “pushed” members into a “union enterprise bargaining agreement” (EBA) or a “pattern” EBA. He said only a small number of NECA members enter into EBAs with the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and that NECA only negotiates these when nominated by a member to do so. Mr Manikam said further that some members may choose to negotiate directly with the ETU and some may choose not to enter into any agreement at all.
Mr Manikam said NECA is represented on the board of two Australian Tax Office-approved severance funds set up for the exclusive use of the electrical industry and for which NECA receives directors’ fees and a distribution according to the success of the fund. He said this income was not “secret” as it is included in NECA’s accounts, published to all of its members, filed with the Fair Work Commission and audited by an external auditor.
NECA said it wrote a letter to the publication after the first article to draw its attention to these inaccuracies and concerns. However, it was not published, nor were these aspects of the article clarified or corrected in any subsequent articles. It said the publication of a short letter by a former state director of NECA, several weeks later, was not an adequate response to the issues raised. The publication said the articles were opinion pieces and labelled as such, and that the writer was expressing a view on NECA’s practices. It said the comments that NECA “forced”, “pushed” and “gets” employers to sign union EBAs was a comment on the behaviour of employer groups in these situations to encourage all members to sign template agreements.
The publication said the term “secret commissions” was a comment on the absence of express disclosure by NECA to its members at the time such union EBAs were being negotiated. The publication said that although the fees and disbursements NECA earned through severance funds are published in the company’s accounts, most members would not have been sufficiently alerted to know whether and how to find this information.
The publication also said that it published the letter from a former state director of NECA in response to the second article, which it suggested had addressed both aspects of the complainant’s concerns.
The Press Council concludes that the statement in the first article that NECA had “forced” its members into pattern EBAs was not an accurate reflection of NECA’s business practice – which was to represent those members that requested NECA to negotiate on their behalf.
Council notes that the articles were opinion pieces and the writer was entitled to express her view on what she claims is a lack of disclosure by NECA about its returns from severance funds, when putting an EBA to a member to sign. However, Council notes that the term “secret commissions” used in this context tends to connote illicit payments, and the article lacked fairness and balance in omitting to state that the payments were in fact disclosed in NECA’s accounts. Accordingly these aspects of the complaint are upheld.
Council also considers that NECA’s letter of 10 September raised claims of serious inaccuracies, but this was not remedied in the second article on 27 September. The first article contained references which were significantly adverse to NECA and the publication had an obligation to provide a fair opportunity for it to respond. Rather, the only response published by the publication was several weeks after publication of the contentious claims and was from a former state director of the Association. Accordingly, Council concludes that reasonable steps were not taken to provide a published response from NECA or other adequate remedial action and these aspects of the complaint are also upheld.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council:
“Publications must take reasonable steps to
1: Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.”