The Press Council considered a complaint from Thai Terrace Rosalie about an article published online in The Courier-Mail on 20 April 2017, headed “Prawn prices in Queensland rise in restaurants despite fishermen cutting prices”.
The article reported that as a result of “a ban on exporting locally caught prawns due to an outbreak of white spot disease in Queensland”, local fishermen “have been forced to slash their prices”. It said “despite a glut of prawns on the local market” Thai Terrace Rosalie advised “customers that the temporary ban on imported prawns had led to a price rise that was being passed onto customers.”
The article reported the contents of a notice posted at the complainant’s restaurant that said: “A temporary ban on imported raw prawns by the Agriculture Minister has forced suppliers to significantly increase the cost of prawns … Unfortunately we have had to temporarily pass this increase on by surcharging prawn dishes by $2.00. This is a temporary measure and will be reversed as soon as possible.” The article concluded by stating that the publication “contacted Thai Terrace but has yet to receive a response”.
The complainant said the article’s statement that the publication was yet to receive a response was inaccurate. The complainant said the only enquiry received was through an online booking form completed by the journalist the day before publication, using a personal email address, which asked “[d]o you charge extra for prawns? If so, why?” in the special requests section of the form. The complainant said it replied to the question by email that day but, had it known the enquiry came from a journalist, it would have provided a more detailed answer.
The complainant said the journalist dined at the restaurant on the night before publication and at that time did not make any enquiries of staff and did not identify herself as a journalist. The complainant said it received no call or voicemail message from the journalist and believed she had been deceptive and unfair in her enquiries.
The complainant said that following the article it emailed the publication explaining it did not source its prawns from the area within which prawns caught were banned from export. Instead, it sourced prawns through its usual supplier who “had increased the price of prawns from $19/kg to $27/kg, a 42% increase”. The complainant said that in order to continue to provide prawns on its menu it would “pass on an increase of $2/dish, an 8% increase in price”. It emailed the publication to follow up but did not receive a response.
The complainant said the article’s implication that it was unduly profiting from the outbreak of white spot disease and taking advantage of its patrons was misleading and unfair. It said the publication of the article damaged its reputation and the publication’s proposal to later include its comments in the story did not remedy its concerns.
The publication said the journalist attempted to contact the complainant by telephone several times over several days prior to publication but those calls were not answered. No message was left on the complainant’s voicemail system. The publication said its use of the online booking form was a last resort and the use of the journalist’s personal email in that form was inadvertent.
The publication said the article was accurate and only included information available in the notice distributed by the complainant to its customers. In any event, it stated the response provided to the journalist’s online booking form did not provide any further information.
It said by including the text of the restaurant’s notice, the article accurately and fairly explained the surcharge was due to a temporary ban on imported raw prawns, forcing suppliers to significantly increase the cost of prawns.
The publication offered to amend the article to include the complainant’s comments.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure 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 refers adversely to a person, 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 Council’s Standards of Practice also require publications to take reasonable steps to avoid publishing material gathered by unfair means—unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest (General Principle 7).
The Council considers that at the time of the article, the publication had received a response to its question in the booking form. Given this, the article’s statement that the publication had yet to receive a response was inaccurate.
The Council also considers the article’s statements that prawn prices were rising in restaurants “despite a glut of prawns on the local market” and “despite fishermen cutting prices”, did imply the complainant was unduly profiting from the situation. The Council accepts this implies the complainant sourced its prawns from the locality affected by the export ban, at a reduced price, when this was not the case. Given this, the article was also misleading. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 1.
In addition to this, the article omitted that the ban on importing prawns to Australia had actually increased the price of prawns in Australia generally, in line with the surcharge put in place by the complainant. In omitting any reference to this, the article unfairly compared the prawn prices at the complainant’s restaurant to those of local fishermen and, given this, did not present the material with reasonable fairness and balance. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principle 3.
As to remedial action, the Council acknowledges the publication offered to update the article with the complainant’s comments. However, the Council does not consider that inclusion of the complainant’s comments would adequately remedy the overall misleading and unfair nature of the article. The publication did not correct the inaccuracy, that it had not yet received a response from the complainant. Further, given it failed to respond to the complainant’s two attempts to resolve the matter directly, the Council considers the publication did not take reasonable steps to provide a fair opportunity for publication of a reply. Accordingly, the publication breached both General Principles 2 and 4.
The Council acknowledges it is best practice for journalists to identify themselves when seeking comment for publication, which did not occur in this case. However, the information provided in the article was publicly available and, as such, no published material had been gathered by deceptive or unfair means. Accordingly, the publication did not breach General Principle 7.
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.
7. Avoid publishing material which has been gathered by deceptive or unfair means, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.
Date: 5 April 2018