The Press Council has considered a complaint by Michael Sutherland MLA about an article published online in Perth Now on 14 June 2014 and in print in The Sunday Times on 15 June 2014. The online article was headed “WA Parliament Speaker Michael Sutherland racks up $26,000 entertainment bill”. The print article was headed “HEY BIG SPENDER: Speaker happy to charge taxpayers $500 a week for his dining bill – on top of his base salary of $246,000”.
The complainant said that the headlines unfairly implied he was using “taxpayers’” funds for “his” personal dining expenses, and by linking the reference to his “salary”, suggested to readers he was “topping up” his salary with public monies.
The complainant claimed that references within the article to “dining costs” and his “dining other politicians, parliamentary staff and community groups” added to the suggestion that expenses were attributable to his personal dining expenses rather than official events connected with the office of the Speaker. He also complained the articles inaccurately report that he entertained “former colleagues from the City of Perth” and that the articles also omitted how many people attended the reported functions and other context to the amounts charged.
The complainant said the full details of the expenditure by the Speaker’s office were provided to the publication but not included in the article. He also said comparisons to spending by previous Speakers were unfair due to a disparity in spending timeframes and also the number and size of official functions from year to year.
The complainant said the reference in the article that “Mr Sutherland is spending more than former Nationals Speaker Grant Woodhams…” was inaccurate given Mr Woodhams’ costs of $19,553.95 were for a six month period.
The complainant said when he endeavoured to address the matter directly with the publication, he was offered the opportunity to write a letter of about 200 words for the paper on the functions of the Speaker’s office. He said this was unsatisfactory because the articles had unfairly implied he had appropriated funds on his personal expenditure, and that this went beyond what could be corrected by an article explaining the general role of the Speaker.
The publication said the article legitimately scrutinised the spending of the office of Speaker during a time when severe budgetary measures had been implemented in the State. It said the term “dining” was a reasonable description for the “afternoon teas”, “working lunches” and “receptions” that were mentioned in the article.
The publication said Mr Sutherland had been a City of Perth councillor for 14 years and Deputy Mayor for five years. It said this long service as a councillor meant it was not unreasonable to describe representatives of the City of Perth as “former colleagues”. It said the article clearly listed events in detail and this demonstrated the spending was not for personal gain. The publication said it twice offered the complainant the opportunity to submit a piece for publication about the role of the Speaker’s office, but he had declined.
The publication also said it would have been inaccurate to include expenditure for the former Nationals Speaker Mr Woodhams as this was on a six month basis and that year on year figures were a simpler way for the reader to compare expenditure of past Speakers and the complainant’s expenditure.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy, fairness and balance. In the Council’s view, the publication’s scrutiny of the Speaker’s expenses, salary and entitlements was a legitimate pursuit for the media and the contents of the article were reasonably fair and balanced.
However, the Council considers that the headline in the print article did not fairly reflect the article’s examination of the spending within the office of the Speaker during Mr Sutherland’s tenure in office and that of his predecessors. In particular, the use of the terms “Hey Big Spender” and “his” when juxtaposed to the references to “dining bill” and “salary” implied the spending was of a personal nature and that the complainant’s office expenses and parliamentary allowances are of personal benefit in the same way as his salary when they are not. Accordingly, the complaint about the print headline is upheld.
The Council considers the description “former colleagues from the City of Perth” was not unreasonable given the complainant’s role and history with that particular organisation. The Council accepts the publication’s offer to publish a 200 word letter from the complainant provided an adequate opportunity for him to respond to the matters raised in the article. Accordingly, these aspects of the complaint are not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following Standards of Practice of the Council which were applicable at the time the material was published:
General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced.”
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.”