The Press Council considered a complaint by Cr Colin Hampton about a front page article in the Frankston Standard Leader on 4 July 2016 headed “Councillor stoush”, which continued on page three headed “Councillor in breach of code of conduct”. The article followed the release of the Councillor Conduct Panel Determination on the behaviour of the complainant and another councillor at the launch of an apartment complex in 2015.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading, and is presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principles 1 and 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or unfair or unbalanced, 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 publication reported earlier, on 14 December 2015, that the developer had complained by letter that the complainant made comments disparaging of the development, had tapped the developer “vigorously on the back”, and was critical that the other councillor had addressed the launch. It included denials from the complainant.
He also said the publication reported on 18 January 2016 that the Frankston Council received multiple complaints about the complainant’s conduct at the launch, repeated the allegations about the complainant’s disparaging comments, noting that the complainant would ask the Panel to examine the protocol relating to the other councillor speaking at the launch. On 27 June 2016, it repeated the allegations about the complainant’s comments, including a denial from the complainant, and said the Panel’s Determination had been prepared and was likely to be released shortly.
The complainant said the article on 4 July 2016 was unfair given the earlier reporting because it did not include that the developer’s complaints had been dismissed. The complainant said the only allegation by the other councillor which was accepted concerned an interaction between the complainant and two Council employees, which the Panel found was in breach of a Code of Conduct and ordered a formal apology. Nine additional allegations by the other councillor had been rejected, and the publication did not report on this or the relationship between the developer and the other councillor. The complainant also said the publication’s reporter was at the launch, standing beside witnesses who in their evidence to the Panel entirely refuted the allegations made against the complainant.
The Complainant also said that after the article appeared he contacted the publication, summarising his concerns, but it had not addressed them.
The publication said it was in the public interest to report in the first three articles the claims being made about the complainant and his response, the fact that the Panel had been set up, and that the Panel had prepared its Determination which would probably be made public. It said the article on 4 July 2016 was a fair and balanced representation of its findings, and it was not possible to cover the whole Determination in the article. As the complainant was found to have breached the Code of Conduct, it was reasonable that the majority of the article reported on that aspect. It also included some allegations which were not upheld, that the other councillor exaggerated his evidence and that questions had been raised over the relationship between the developer and the other councillor, including allegations the other councillor co-authored the developer’s letter of complaint.
The publication also said it was clear from the article that its reporter was present at the launch, that he had limited involvement and that reporters are not usually made part of a story.
The Council notes that the Panel dismissed all allegations against the complainant, except that his conduct in relation to two Council employees was found to be objectively threatening behaviour in breach of the Code of Conduct. It ordered a formal apology be made. It found that his conduct in questioning how the other councillor came to speak was inappropriate but not in breach of the Code.
The Panel found the other councillor deliberately exaggerated his evidence, and advanced nine additional allegations to assist his case without a sound factual basis, including one that the complainant was ejected from the event. Further, the Panel did not uphold allegations made from the developer—if these were in fact maintained—that the complainant had made comments disparaging of the development at the launch or had tapped the developer “vigorously on the back”. It dismissed the allegations that the other councillor speaking at the launch was a breach of the Code of Conduct.
The Council accepts that the Determination is lengthy and that not all aspects could be covered in the article. However, the fact the Panel disbelieved the other councillor’s evidence of his observations while speaking onstage and found he made nine additional allegations without factual basis, simply to advance his case, were very significant to presenting the report in a fair and balanced way, particularly given earlier coverage of the Panel’s formation and preparation of its report. The fact that the developer’s allegations that the complainant had made comments disparaging of the development and had tapped the developer “vigorously on the back” were not upheld was also significant, given the article in 2015 raised these allegations.
Accordingly, the Council considers that reasonable steps to ensure fairness and balance required the 4 July article to include these matters. It concludes that in failing to do so, the publication breached General Principle 3, and in not providing a fair opportunity for a reply after the article appeared, the publication also breached General Principle 4.
The Council does not consider the reporting went so far as to be misleading, and accordingly, does not consider that it breached General Principle 1 or 2.
Relevant Council Standards
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.