The Press Council considered a complaint from ClubsNSW about an article published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 12 March 2018 headed “Pokie numbers are set to rise under new laws” in print and “Law changes could see pokie machine numbers rise in vulnerable areas” online.
The article said that changes proposed by the NSW government to poker machine laws “could increase the number of machines in high-risk areas and increase pokie profits by an estimated $80 million a year.” It referred to an announcement by the NSW Racing Minister of the proposed changes including “a cap on machines in “higher risk areas” such as Fairfield”. It noted however that there would be a “provision to allow clubs and pubs to lease licences on machines to other venues” and noted that “Under present laws machines can only be transferred by sale, and for every three machines sold, one must be forfeited. Under new laws venues would be able to avoid forfeiting machines by leasing them instead. Also, smaller regional clubs and pubs could lease poorly performing machines to larger venues in high-revenue areas like Fairfield.” It reported the Mayor of Fairfield as saying “under the changes not only could low-turnover machines be moved to high-turnover areas, but clubs could activate dormant licences, increasing the overall number of machines”.
The complainant said the article and the headline were inaccurate and misleading in saying the proposed changes could see a rise in poker machine numbers in vulnerable areas because NSW’s so called “sinking lid” on gaming machine entitlements means that overall poker machine numbers can never rise and the new legislation specifically introduces a cap on machine numbers in vulnerable areas, such as Fairfield. It was also inaccurate in saying that smaller regional clubs could lease their poorly performing machines to larger venues in high revenue areas like Fairfield because the proposed changes expressly prohibit venues outside of Fairfield leasing their machine entitlements to venues in Fairfield whether through lease, sale or transfer. It was also inaccurate in the context of an article dealing with proposed changes to quote the Mayor’s comment that clubs could activate dormant licences increasing the overall number of machines in Fairfield because the right to activate dormant licences existed before the proposed changes. The complainant said the publication ignored its request for these statements to be corrected.
The publication said the article and the headline are accurate and focus on concerns that the proposed changes will allow for poker machine owners to lease non-performing machines to other venues where they will make more money. While the publication accepted that poker machines cannot be moved into Fairfield, it said they can be moved within parts of Fairfield. It said critics of the legislation informed it that the legislation could result in a lower overall number of machines and an increase in the money taken by those machines or a higher number of machines and a higher take. It said the new legislation for the first time allowed clubs to “lease” machines to other clubs that had not yet reached their entitlement of machines. By leasing a machine clubs could avoid the ‘sinking lid’ laws that required one machine to be forfeited for every three sold. While the publication acknowledged the right to activate dormant licences existed before the proposed changes, the quote from the Mayor did not say that right was introduced as part of the proposed changes. The publication said reactivating dormant licences has a greater significance now that, for the first time, clubs are able to lease machines. The publication said it responded to the complainant’s letter of complaint denying the article was inaccurate and offering to the opportunity to submit an opinion piece.
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 unfair and 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 notes that before the proposed changes, the ‘sinking lid’ provisions of gaming laws required clubs to forfeit one machine for every three machines sold by a club to another club and that this would most likely lead to an eventual reduction of machine numbers. The Council considers that, as the proposed changes allow clubs the option of leasing machines to other clubs without the previous forfeiture requirements, it is less likely that a reduction in machine numbers will take place by forfeiture of machines upon sale. The Council considers it is possible there will be more machines as a result of the proposed changes than would otherwise have been the case. The Council concludes the article was not inaccurate or misleading or unfair and unbalanced in this respect.
The Council also notes that while clubs outside Fairfield cannot lease their machines to clubs in Fairfield, machines in low turnover areas of Fairfield could be moved to high turnover areas within Fairfield. While the expression used in the article may not have been ideal, the Council concludes the article is not significantly inaccurate or misleading or unfair and unbalanced in this respect.
As to the right to activate dormant licences, the Council notes this existed before the proposed changes. However this comment is attributed to the Mayor—not stated as a fact— and is in the context that, for the first time, clubs are able to lease machines. The Council concludes the article was not inaccurate or misleading or unfair and unbalanced in this respect.
Accordingly the Council concludes the publication did not breach General Principles 1 and 3, nor General Principles 2 and 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 a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.