The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by three articles published by The Sunday Mail headed “Stadiums Showdown” (front page in print), “We’ve been hit high” (print), “NRL, AFL and Super Rugby unite to fight soaring rents and levies from Stadiums Queensland (online), “Ball dropped on footy” (print editorial) and “Stadiums Queensland gouging footy franchises into oblivion” (online), all of which were published on 15 April 2018.
The articles reported on the rents and levies that sporting teams incur for the use of stadiums operated by Stadiums Queensland and discussed the impact of this on various sporting codes, including the NRL. The articles said “Price gouging by Stadiums Queensland is threatening the fiscal viability of the state’s top footy clubs”, “A Sunday Mail investigation reveals the Broncos … are all facing massive financial challenges on the back of soaring rental costs”, “Even the … Broncos, who have by far the best arrangement with the Government, get slugged with well over $1 million in levies” and “Even the Broncos … struggle to survive under the current economic structure being imposed by Stadiums Queensland”.
The Council received a complaint that The Sunday Mail is 100 per cent owned by News Corp Australia which, through its subsidiary Nationwide News Pty Ltd, is the major shareholder in Brisbane Broncos Limited (‘Broncos’). The Council asked the publication to comment on whether in not expressly disclosing the relationship between The Sunday Mail, the Broncos and Stadiums Queensland, it had failed to take reasonable steps to ensure conflicts of interest were avoided or adequately disclosed (General Principle 8). The Council noted that it had previously issued a Letter of Advice to the publication concerning an earlier article about Suncorp Stadium and the lack of express disclosure that the Broncos were owned by News Corp Australia.
The publication said the articles and editorial subject of the complaint were not directly focused on nor intended to be about the Broncos, but rather were a comment about the way stadiums throughout Queensland are being managed and the impact that is having on numerous sporting clubs. The publication said the real focus of the article was on two other teams and the article makes the point that the Broncos actually have the best deal. It said as a major state newspaper its role was to advocate on behalf of sport in Queensland and this is particularly important when shining a light on what it said was the potential mismanagement of major stadiums by the State Government.
The publication said its policy and usual process is to disclose its relationship with the Broncos when it involves a story relating to the financials or management of the club, but not in sport stories regarding the game, the teams, or in an upgrade to the stadium where they play. It said that given the number of stories it publishes about the Broncos, it is not feasible to reference News Corp Australia’s ownership each time and its ownership of the team is well known amongst its readership. The publication said these articles were not considered to fall within the category requiring disclosure.
The publication said that including a disclosure in the article was not necessary to comply with the Council’s Standards, however it said it would be willing to amend the online article to add a disclosure. It also noted personnel at the publication had changed since the Letter of Advice was issued.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure that conflicts of interest are avoided or adequately disclosed, and do not influence published material (General Principle 8).
The Council considers that the prominent focus of the articles is Stadiums Queensland’s operation and the management of stadiums used by various Queensland sporting clubs, including the rents and levies it imposes on those sporting clubs. Whilst the articles’ focus may not have specifically been on the Broncos, the Council considers that Stadiums Queensland’s operation and management of sporting stadiums, and the rents and levies charged, are of financial concern to the Broncos and therefore are also of financial concern to News Corp Australia.
The Council acknowledges that many readers of the publication’s sports coverage would be aware of the relationship between News Corp Australia and the Broncos, however the Council considers this is not necessarily the case for all readers. This is especially so in the case of a front page news story and online content which is accessible interstate.
The Council considers that News Corp Australia has a financial interest in the level of the rent and levies imposed on the Broncos by Stadiums Queensland and that it failed to take reasonable steps to ensure this conflict of interest was adequately disclosed in the articles. Accordingly the Council considers the publication breached General Principle 8.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication)
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
8. Ensure that conflicts of interest are avoided or adequately disclosed, and they do not influence published material.