The Press Council considered a complaint by Bob Brown, about two articles published on 17 March 2017 in The Daily Telegraph. The first article was headed “TRIGGS’ GIG FOR GREENS” on the front page, and continued on page four headed “Human rights chief not partial to impartiality”. The second article, on page 13, was headed “TRIGG-HUGGER: HUMAN RIGHTS CHIEF A GREENIE DISGRACE”, also published online headed “Sharri Markson: Gillian Triggs has revealed her true colour … and it’s green”. That opinion article was followed with an editorial on page 64, headed “Forget politics and concentrate on job”.
The first article began: “AUSTRALIA’S Human Rights Commission chief Gillian Triggs is under pressure to step down after agreeing to headline a fundraiser for ex-Greens leader Bob Brown”. It reported that “Mr Brown was arrested last year in an anti-logging protest and the [Bob Brown F]oundation regularly issues press releases advocating its pro-forestry and anti-mining stance”. The second article included a large cartoon depicting Professor Triggs hugging the complainant depicted as a tree. It repeated that the complainant “was arrested for a logging protest and was escorted by police away from a Tasmanian forest”.
The complainant said the articles are inaccurate, misleading, unfair and unbalanced in a number of key respects. First, the complainant said the headline “TRIGGS’ GIG FOR GREENS” would have misled a reasonable reader to believe the event was a fundraiser for the Australian Greens political party when it had no such purpose.
Second, the complainant said the “gig” referred to was not a fundraiser for the Bob Brown Foundation but an event organised by the Foundation to provide Tasmanians with annual orations by significant speakers. He said the event has regularly run at a loss and profits if any were donated to charity. The complainant said the editorial admitted this in its concluding paragraph: “For her part Triggs asserts that the event is not political, nor is it a fundraiser. Technically true, perhaps, but given her history in the office, not a good look either.”
Third, the complainant said the articles referred to the fact he had been arrested in 2016 for participating in a protest, but unfairly omitted that all charges were later dropped (and that the laws were being challenged, later successfully). He said this fostered a false impression that he had broken the law. The complainant also said the article inaccurately refers to the Foundation as “pro-forestry” although it seeks to end logging of native forests.
Fourth, the complainant said although he is prominently referred to in both articles, as well as the accompanying editorial, and depicted in a prominent cartoon with Professor Triggs, he was not contacted by the publication for comment. He said he was subsequently contacted after publication of the article with a list of emailed questions and he offered the publication a telephone interview instead, to which it did not respond.
The publication responded that the headline “Triggs’ gig for Greens” did not state the gig was for the Australian Greens party, nor does the article. It said the headline is accurate and reasonably reflects the context of the article, focusing on Professor Triggs’ ‘gig’ for a foundation which regularly supports ‘green’ causes and is headed by the Greens’ former leader. The publication said the first two paragraphs of the article make this clear.
Second, the publication said it was not misleading or unfair to describe the event as a “fundraiser” in the opening paragraph. The publication said the money raised from tickets for the event went in the first instance to the complainant’s Foundation and Professor Triggs (whose comments were included in the article) had said if there were extra funds after covering costs these would go to a charity.
Third, the publication said the reference to the complainant’s arrest was to demonstrate that he remained a green activist. It said the article did not state that he was charged and it did not need to as it had previously reported on these charges being dropped.
Fourth, the publication said the focus of the articles was on Professor Triggs and not the complainant, and there was no suggestion he had done anything wrong or improper. It said following publication of the articles, it contacted the complainant concerning a potential follow-up piece and put detailed questions to him, which he refused to answer.
In relation to the “pro-forestry” comment, it said the use of the term meant to convey that the complainant and his Foundation support the preservation of forests, and any reasonable reader would understand it this way.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading, distinguishable from other material such as opinion (General Principle 1), is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or an omission of key facts (General Principle 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 Council considers the headline “TRIGGS’ GIG FOR GREENS” is misleading in implying that the event attended by Professor Triggs was for the Greens party and not for the Bob Brown Foundation. The first article’s statement that the event was “tied to the Greens party” and the second article’s reference to the “Green-aligned event”, together with the repeated description of the event as a “fundraiser”, was likely to lead readers to understand that it was a Greens event. The Council also considers that referring to the event as a fundraiser as opposed to an oration was inaccurate. Whether or not there was any profit from the event, its purpose was not to raise funds but to cover the costs of the event. Based on the information provided, the Council accepts there had been limited if any surplus in the event’s history. In reporting these matters in the manner it did, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the article was accurate and not misleading. Accordingly, it breached General Principle 1.
Having been alerted to these significantly misleading aspects, the publication did not publish a clarification or any corrective remedial action. Accordingly, it breached General Principle 2.
The Council considers the repeated reference to the complainant being arrested, without also reporting what came of this, was unfair by omission. Although the Council accepts the publication previously reported that charges were dropped, this was many months before and did not outweigh the unfairness of the repeated reference and omission in this instance. The Council also considers that the publication ought to have also contacted the complainant for comment. Given the above factors, the publication, in not affording the complainant a right of reply prior to publication, failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the article was presented with reasonable fairness and balance. Accordingly, it breached General Principle 3.
The Council does not accept that the complainant refused to answer the publication’s questions for a potential follow-up article. Based on the information provided, the complainant reasonably responded to the publication’s list of questions by asking to be interviewed, which was not followed up. In not providing a fair opportunity for subsequent publication of a reply, the publication also breached General Principle 4.
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 reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.