The Press Council considered a complaint from Frances Harrison about an article published in the Cairns Post on Monday 26 November 2018 headed “Health boss has job loss windfall” in print and “Cairns Hospital HR manager’s six-figure payout after seven months on the job” online.
The article reported that “Figures from Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Service’s 2017–18 Annual Report show former HR executive director Frances Harrison received a payment of $106,000 upon her resignation” in March and that she “had only been appointed to the high-paying job in mid-July last year”. The article also stated that sources “claimed bullying complaints within the service increased during this period” immediately above an image of the complainant. The article went on to report that the Health Service Chief Executive “declined to say why Ms Harrison had resigned from her position, but said that the payout was ‘in line with the conditions of her contract’” and reported that the People and Engagement Executive Director “declined to comment directly about allegations of bullying during Ms Harrison’s tenure”, but then quoted her as saying “The health service treats complaints of bullying very seriously.” The article went on to report that in the two years since the Health Service “board had quit over a forecast $80 million budget deficit, there [had] been several resignations of senior executives”.
The complainant said the article is misleading in leading readers to believe that she had personal involvement in bullying or inability to manage it and that this was related to her termination. The complainant said this inference is compounded in the online article by the inclusion of a prominent photograph of her immediately after the reference to the statement that sources had claimed an increase in bullying complaints during the 2017–18 financial year and near the quotations from hospital executives. The complainant said that there was insufficient basis to make this inference either in emails from a source referred to by the publication or in AMA Resident Hospital Health Check which the publication had relied on in response to her complaint. The complainant said the AMA document is a voluntary survey and is limited to some medical staff and not all staff, and not actual data on the number of grievances raised by staff. In any case, the complainant said that she began in her role in July 2017 and left in March 2018. The 2016-17 AMA Survey was undertaken at around the time she commenced in her role and could not be relevant to her performance in her role. Even if there was evidence in the 2017-18 AMA Survey to indicate an increase in bullying complaints during the 2017–18 reporting period, it is unfair to make explicit reference to her when referring to that increase as she had only been in the position for eight months.
During the complaints process, the complainant also said the article was inaccurate in reporting that she had resigned. She said for reasons unconnected with her performance or bullying, her employment came to an end in a manner which qualified her to receive a termination payment in line with her employment contract. The complainant said that the Health Service Annual report lists the $106,000 she received as a “termination benefit”. The Annual Report does not state she resigned.
The complainant said that she had a LinkedIn profile through which the publication could have contacted her to check the facts or seek her comment, but she was not contacted by the publication before the article appeared.
In response, the publication said the article does not state — nor would any reasonable reader infer — that the complainant was herself a bully or that she had been subject to an allegation of bullying. It said the article merely suggested that complaints had been made by members of the Health Services staff. The publication said it is more likely that a reader would conclude the increase in the bullying allegations at the hospital made the complainant’s position untenable, causing her to leave her employment there. The only reason for leaving mentioned in the article was that the complainant “moved on to pursue more ‘strategic’ human resources work”. The publication said a 2017–18 Australian Medical Association survey — which covered her period of employment — reported an increase in bullying complaints from the 2016–17 period. The publication said that the article did not refer only to the complainant but also reports that the Health Service board quit in 2016 over a forecast $80 million budget deficit and that there have been several resignations of senior executives since 2016.
The publication said that prior to publication, in accordance with the Heath Service’s preferred process, it had sent questions to the Health Service seeking further information and which it answered. The publication subsequently provided two written questions which did not refer to the issue of bullying, put to the Health Service and the answers. The publication also said it attempted to make contact with the complainant through telephone number listings but there were too many similar names for it to be able to do so.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure published material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1), and is presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or not reasonably fair and balanced, the publication 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 that on the information available during the complaints process including the Health Service’s Annual Report, it is most likely that the complainant was terminated rather than having resigned. It was inaccurate to assert as a fact that she had resigned. The Council notes the publication’s indication that it relied on emails it sighted through a source and contacted the Health Service. However, the Council does not consider the steps taken were reasonable in light of the complainant’s social media presence, the limited questions put to the Health Service, and the anecdotal nature of the source material.
The Council considers that the article implies that the complainant was linked to an increase in bullying complaints. This is more strongly implied in the online article given the position of a photograph of the complainant. On the material available to it, the Council does not consider that the complainant could be reasonably linked to an increase in bullying complaints. Although the publication referred during the Council’s complaints process to emails said to reference bullying claims at the Health Service, these were not provided to the Council. The Council considers the 2016-17 AMA Survey could not be relevant to the complainant’s performance in the role as it concluded at around the time the complainant began in her role. The Survey Report contained an aggregation of reported incidents of bullying, harassment and discrimination, not bullying complaints made by individuals. The 2017-18 AMA Survey was not relevant for the same reasons and in addition, covered the period of the complainant’s employment but the complainant was only there for 8 months of the Survey year. The Council also notes that the AMA surveys are voluntary, the survey response rate was very low, limited to resident medical staff and was not data on the number of complaints raised by staff. Council also noted the survey reported an increase in staff confidence in management’s responses and this factor could account for an increase in complaints.
Accordingly, the Council considers the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material was not misleading and was presented with reasonable fairness and balance and breached General Principles 1 and 3.
As to General Principle 2 and 4, while reference to the complainant’s employment ending by ‘resignation’ was inaccurate, the Council does not consider the reference to be so significantly inaccurate that it requires correction or other remedial action. The Council considers the misleading inference that the complainant was linked to an increase in bullying complaints was so significant that it would have breached General Principle 2 but for the publication amending the online article to remove misleading or unfairly presented factual material and publishing an apology to the complainant, albeit at a late stage in its process.
Relevant Council Standards
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.