The Press Council considered a complaint by the NBN Co about a front page article in the Tully Times on 29 October 2015, headed “No Brains Network”, and an article in the subsequent edition on 5 November, headed “NBN and country newspapers”.
The articles concerned the rollout of the NBN in the Tully region of the Cassowary Coast in Queensland, and contained criticism of the suggested likely costs and limited services of the NBN’s satellite services.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading or not reasonably fair and balanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4).
The complainant said the articles were misleading and not fair or balanced because they relied entirely on the opinion of one local businessman and cable technician, and contained no input from NBN Co. The complainant also said the publication did not give it a chance to respond to the adverse claims in the articles before they were published. The complainant said its Corporate Affairs Manager (Queensland), whose role includes addressing media enquiries, sent an email response addressing the claims in the first article to the publication as soon as she learned of it. Although some of the responses did not specifically address the claims made in the first article, none of her comments were published.
The complainant also said it was unfair and misleading to state in the second article that "at the time of going to press, there had been no response … from the NBN", when the publication had not sought a response from NBN Co.
The publication said that it did not seek a response from NBN Co’s media representative before the first article was published because it was seeking a response from a qualified technician on behalf of NBN Co, and had tried to do so using the normal public access phone numbers. It questioned whether a Corporate Affairs Manager, rather than a qualified technician, would be qualified to act as a spokesperson for NBN Co about the issues raised. It also said the publication had sourced additional information from NBN Co’s website and included it in the first article.
The publication said the correction sought by the complainant was not appropriate as it lacked attribution to any person within NBN Co whose role was to deal with issues of a technical nature. The publication also added that since no specific person from NBN Co was mentioned in the story, no one had been referred to adversely.
The Council considers that the publication should have sought comment from NBN Co’s media representative before the articles were published. Although the factual inaccuracies in the articles were not major ones, the lack of any alternate analysis being presented to readers rendered them misleading. The publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the articles were not misleading. Further, the statement in the second article that there had been no comment from NBN Co, when one had not in fact been sought, was also misleading and lacking in balance. The Council considers that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the articles were presented in a manner that was not misleading and was fair and balanced as required by General Principles 1 and 3. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
A publication is required to take reasonable steps to provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading. The Council considers that, given NBN Co’s Corporate Affairs Manager is its spokesperson, the publication should have given her a fair and reasonable opportunity to reply, and failure to do so breached General Principles 2 and 4. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is 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.”