The Press Council considered a complaint from Cr Angela Owen, Chairman of the Brisbane City Council, about an article published in Brisbane Times on 26 March 2018 headed "Council chairman accused of being abusive and being biased”, later amended to "Council chairman accused of bullying and bias” and then to "Council chairman accused of allowing bullying and being biased”.
The article said in its first paragraph that the complainant “had been accused of allowing bullying and being partisan during full council meetings”. It said that the complainant had chaired seven meetings of the City Council, councillors were warned seven times and a councillor was once ordered to leave. It said these incidents involved Labor or independent councillors and that no LNP councillors were warned. It referred to a letter written by the Opposition Leader to formally complain to the City Council’s Chief Executive, describing the complainant’s actions at a recent meeting as “ruthlessly biased”.
The complainant said that while references to her being biased were inaccurate, they were attributed in the story to a source. However, the initial headline "Council chairman accused of being abusive and being biased”, then altered to "Council chairman accused of bullying and bias”, inaccurately and unfairly indicated she had personally been accused of being abusive and a bully when no such claims were made in the article or in the record of the Council meeting and no evidence was provided. She said she had not been contacted for comment prior to publication of the article.
The complainant said that on her behalf the City Council’s media unit contacted the publication at 7.33am on 26 March 2018 seeking amendment of the headline and several minutes later the headline was amended to "Council chairman accused of bullying and bias”. The complainant said that a few minutes later the City Council’s media unit again contacted the publication to complain about the amended headline and at 10.28am the complainant emailed the publication explicitly denying the claims. The complainant said the article was later republished to include a paragraph noting that the complainant “said the bullying and bias claims were false” and quoted the complainant saying “I vehemently reject this claim”. However she said the inclusion of her response was out of context and did not address her specific concern about the claim that she had been accused of bullying.She said that the article was again republished with the altered headline "Council chairman accused of allowing bullying and being biased”. The complainant said that it took an excessively long time for this correction to be made and the delay had, and would continue to have, an adverse effect on her reputation. She noted that social media posts had been made about the inaccurate headline by others, which she said were still online. She said the previous headlines would likely be used for political purposes against her at the next City Council election.
The publication said that the article featured comments attributed to the Opposition leader and was based on events in a City Council meeting and that discussion of the events was in the public interest. It said it took reasonable steps to ensure that factual material was accurate and not misleading and presented with fairness and balance. This included contacting the City Council media unit —to which all media inquiries must be made rather than individual councillors—prior to publication for comment. It also incorporated into the article extracts from Council minutes of the exchange and independently tallied the number of incidents in which the Chair had warned councillors or ordered them to leave the chamber.
It said after publication it promptly and repeatedly responded to the issues raised by the complainant, starting with republishing the article with the headline “Council Chairman accused of bullying and bias” at 7.47am. At 7.59am the City Council’s media unit again contacted the reporter to complain about the revisions and following the complainant’s email of 10.28am the publication included the only comment provided by the complainant in a revised version of the article published at 11.30am. At 2.31pm the article was revised again with the headline “Council chairman accused of allowing bullying and being biased”. It said that except for the email from the complainant to the reporter, it was the City Council media unit rather than the complainant who had raised concerns with the story.
It said that it did not accept that the original headline was wrong and said that abuse of power is a form of bullying and that it had revised the headline only for clarity. It took all available steps to address the issue raised by the complainant—including changing the URL link to the story and taking action so far as possible to remove previous versions. The publication disputed the assertion that the posts referred to by the complainant still appeared and said the complainant had other avenues to complain about posts on pages controlled by third parties. It disputed the complainant’s comments about the effect on her reputation. It referred to a subsequent article referring to a letter reported to have been sent by the City Council Chief Executive to Lord Mayor Graham Quirk and the 26 councillors, which it said addressed concerns about the standard of councillors' behaviour.
The Press 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 Press Council considers that the initial headline stated that the complainant had personally been accused of being abusive and being a bully. Neither the article nor any material put forward by the publication during the Press Council’s complaints process supported this statement. The Press Council notes the publication did seek comment from the media unit before publication. However, given the seriousness of the allegation, the Press Council considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure it was accurate, not misleading and fair and balanced. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principles 1 and 3.
The Press Council notes that it took six hours after initial request for the headline to be revised to remove the statement that the complainant had been accused of being a bully.The Press Council considers that a revision could and should have been made earlier. The Press Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to provide a correction or other remedial action. Accordingly, it breached General Principle 2.
In light of the request for comment to the City Council’s media unit before publication and the reasonably prompt inclusion of the complainant’s denial on the morning of 27 March, the Press Council considers the publication took reasonable steps to provide a fair opportunity for a reply. Accordingly, General Principle 4 was not breached.
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.