The Press Council considered a complaint by Scott Broadhead about the publication on 25 October 2016 of a letter to the editor in print and online, headed “Bike path an asset”.
The letter was dated “07.05.09” and was written by the complainant’s father, Mr Bill Broadhead, who died in 2014. It congratulated Port Stephens Council for building and maintaining a local cycling and walking track and was accompanied by a photograph captioned “JOB WELL DONE: Bill Broadhead from Bermagui was impressed by the cycle paths around Grahamstown Dam”.
The complainant said the letter was written by his father, submitted to the publication and published seven years earlier. For it to be republished again two years after his father’s death was totally insensitive and misled the public that its message was current. He said the letter should never have been reprinted and, if there was reason to do so the author should have been contacted, which would have revealed that the letter was not current and the author had died. He said he was concerned the publication had not observed the clear date on his father’s email which incorporated the letter, that his father’s original letter had been addressed to the Mayor of Port Stephens Council yet the republished version of the letter was addressed to Port Stephens Council, and queried whether the publication has a policy of recycling letters to the editor. The complainant also said the editor could have easily contacted him prior to publication, given he was well known to the publication. He also said numerous attempts to contact the editor after publication to discuss the letter went unanswered.
The publication said the publication of the letter was an honest mistake for which the editor sincerely apologises and takes full responsibility. It said it did not intend to cause distress or offence in any way. It removed the online version of the letter when it was contacted by the Press Council. The editor received the email incorporating the letter in the Letters inbox on 21 October 2016, relied on the time of receipt and missed the original date in the letter. The publication said above the date was a sentence with a current time stamp which read “Please include this in your Letters to the Editor column … many thanks Bill Broadhead”, which added to the perception that the letter was sent that day. The publication said its IT staff had investi-gated the source of the email and confirmed it was sent on 21 October 2016. It said the editor did not know that Mr Bill Broadhead was the complainant’s father, that Mr Bill Broadhead had passed away or that the letter had previously been published. The publication also said the complainant had only contacted it twice.
The publication said normally it would contact any author of a letter to the editor providing a controversial opinion but this subject matter was innocuous, and given the renewed focus on completed bike paths across Port Stephens, entirely relevant. It said its lack of reply to the complainant was attributable to problems with the communication system resulting partly from new staff. The publication indicated its willingness to publish an apology in print, which was accepted by the complainant. It advised that it had since changed its procedures to contact all authors of letters to the editor prior to publication, as well as its procedures for staff communicating phone messages from complainants.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion (General Principe 1), provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading (General Principle 2), and avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 6).
The Council accepts that the editor made a mistake in missing the actual date on the letter, and on the information available, the Council is unable to determine how the email incorporating the letter appeared in the publication’s letters inbox in 2016. Nonetheless, the Council considers that the publication of the letter suggested the author of the letter was alive, had recently offered his congratulations on the pathways to Port Stephens Council rather than just the Mayor, was recently impressed by the maintenance of the paths, and that this was the first time this letter had been published. The publication could have avoided these misleading impressions by observing the date on the email or contacting the author. As such, the Council considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the letter as published was accurate and not misleading, in breach of General Principle 1.
The Council acknowledges that the publication removed the online version of the letter during the course of the Council’s complaints process and has since offered to publish an apology. However, the apparent significant delay in responding to the complainant’s concerns amounts to a failure to take reasonable steps to provide a correction or other adequate remedial action, in breach of General Principle 2.
On the material available, the Council does not consider that the level of offence or distress caused by publication of the letter was so substantial as to lead to a breach of General Principle 6.
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.
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.