The Press Council considered a complaint from Cr Philip Penfold about an article published in the Maitland Mercury on 19 June 2019, headed “The weighting game” on the front page and continuing on page five, headed “Gym approval on hold over parking: Owner in tears at council’s change of heart” in print.
The article reported that a gym owner who considered that local council approval for her plans to establish an all-female gym would be a formality, was “reduced to tears” when “her application was surprisingly voted down due to concerns over parking” and that “what floored her the most was Cr Penfold’s change of heart”. The article reported “Cr Philip Penfold, who originally posted on social media his support for the proposal, changed his position” and went on to report that “Cr Penfold’s change of motion surprised other councillors too.”
The complainant said it was inaccurate to report that he had posted on social media support of a woman’s only gym. He said the publication provided no proof that he had previously stated his support for the application. The complainant said that reporting that he had done so, cast aspersions on him politically by unfairly inferring he had a hidden agenda in not supporting the establishment of the gym and that he had “backflipped” on a previous undertaking. He said that any development application (DA) is about the suitability of a business type and that support for a DA is about the proposal on a particular site, not a comment in support of a particular business. The complainant also said that in any event, he had never posted anything in support of the proposed gym anywhere on social media and it was council practice not to do so.
The publication said the applicant for the proposed gym told it that the social media post by Cr Penfold had been deleted. The publication said it contacted the applicant’s business partner who said she had also seen the post. The publication said that it rang Cr Penfold three times in succession to get his version of events, but he picked up and then immediately hung up each time. The publication said it had also sent him a text message as well as an email stating they understood he had previously supported the idea of the gym, which he ignored. The publication also said that it refutes any suggestion that the article casts aspersions on Cr Penfold and said the matter could have been easily clarified by him providing a brief response.
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 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 notes that, apart from the publication stating that it had been told by those associated with the proposed gym that Cr Penfold had publicly endorsed it, the publication provided no evidence that this had in fact occurred. Accordingly, taking into particular account the unequivocal manner in which it stated that the complainant publicly endorsed the gym, the Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure its reporting was accurate and not misleading in breach of General Principle 1. The Council accepts, and the complainant did not dispute, the various steps the publication took to seek comment from the complainant concerning the veracity of the claims that he had publicly endorsed the gym. The Council is satisfied that the publication provided the complainant with an adequate opportunity to respond. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication took reasonable steps to ensure fairness and balance and did not breach General Principles 3 and 4. Given the refusal by the complainant to engage with the publication and its view that the article was accurate at the time of publication, and in the absence of a request from the complainant for a subsequent reply, the Council finds no breach of General Principle 2.
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 a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.