The Press Council considered a complaint by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) about material published in The Australian: an editorial headed “Military no place for tokenism” published on 8 April 2016, and the editing of a letter to the editor from the ADF, headed “The defence force is taking steps to ensure needed cultural change” published on 13 April along with an editorial headed “ADF Mission must be restored” and a report headed “Brass fightback on ‘diversity’ in defence”. All the material was published in print and online, with the editorial and report on 13 April having different headlines online.
The first editorial criticised the role and actions of the Navy’s “Islamic affairs strategic advisor”, as reflecting a cultural change strategy that has institutionalised “identity politics” in the ADF. It suggested this caused a “culture of division”, threatened “the military cohesion required” and was causing the redirection of resources “to impotent causes”, instead of the ADF concentrating on “fortifying critical combat capabilities”.
The letter as published after editing defended the ADF policy of “a culture of inclusion” accommodating diversity. It said the ADF was changing to ensure it was “representative of the community we defend” and “[d]iversity is not about identity politics”. It referred to the ADF “missions around the world” and the overhaul of “equipment acquisition processes”. The letter as submitted included details of ADF’s current operational capacity and capability achievements which were not in the letter as published.
The second editorial again criticised the ADF’s “cultural change program” and problems with “Australia’s ailing submarine fleet” and said the ADF’s letter “contains a series of motherhood statements praising the ADF’s culture of inclusion without any supporting evidence”. The report referred to points made in the letter and the editorial, and cited a commentator’s view that there must be a balance between diversity and cohesion in the ADF.
The complainant said the first editorial’s statement that the ADF was “redirecting resources to impotent causes” unfairly omitted to refer to publicly available evidence demonstrating the ADF’s proven operational success and ongoing investment in military capability. It said the editorial implied the ADF had lost focus on its primary mission when in fact the ADF had been deployed in near constant combat operations for years.
The complainant said the letter from the ADF specifically responded to criticisms in the first editorial of the ADF’s operational activity and to the claim it was neglecting key areas such as submarine capability. It said these points were so significant that to edit them out was to mislead.
The complainant was particularly concerned with the second editorial because it repeated criticisms raised in the first editorial to which the submitted letter responded by summarising the ADF’s operational activity and responding to the claim of neglecting key areas such as submarine capability.
The publication responded that the first editorial was not unfair. It focused on the issue of the ADF’s cultural change strategy which emerged following controversy surrounding the Navy’s Islamic affairs advisor. The editorial argued that the ADF’s increasing concern with social inclusion and diversity programs could potentially undermine military capability, and that the ADF should focus on its core responsibilities. The publication said submarines were a brief example of an area of operational weakness in the broader context of ADF capability. The publication emphasised that it was primarily concerned with cultural change strategies employed by the ADF and that it was not incumbent on it to report on the ADF’s successful operations.
The publication said by publishing the letter, the ADF was given a right of reply. It said the published letter was only slightly edited for space reasons; at 375 words, it was at least 100 words longer than other published letters on the day. It did not accept that the edits to the letter changed its meaning or tenor. The edited paragraphs were a summary of the ADF’s current deployments, which was not a specific response to issues raised in the first editorial concerning the ADF’s approach to diversity and identity politics. The publication said it drew attention to the letter by quoting liberally from it in the article published on the same day.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1), and is presented with reasonable fairness and balance and does not omit key facts (General Principle 3). If these requirements are not met, 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 considers that the first editorial was an expression of opinion about the ADF’s diversity programs and the risk of compromising the capacity of the ADF in the future. The Council is satisfied the publication took reasonable steps to ensure it was not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or an omission of key facts concerning what the complainant referred to as evidence of its successful operations and ongoing investment in military and submarine capability. The Council considers the editing of the letter preserved the essence of the points made by the ADF, omitting only details of the points made in support. Publications have a broad discretion to edit letters, provided it does not change their meaning or tenor, which the Council considers did not occur in this instance. The Council considers that in editing the letter as it did, the publication took reasonable steps to ensure that it was an accurate and not misleading reflection of the complainant’s submitted letter.
As to the second editorial, the Council notes that while the letter as submitted provided details of successful operations and ongoing investment in capability, it did not refer to the Islamic affairs strategic adviser and whether that role and the actions of the adviser reflected a cultural change strategy which institutionalised identity politics. Also, while the second editorial referred to a portion of the submitted letter which had not been published, it referred accurately to the omitted portions. In the circumstances, the Council considers the publication took reasonable steps to ensure that factual material in the second editorial was accurate and fair and balanced, and that the opinion was not based on inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts. The Council also considers that the letter as published amounted to a fair opportunity for the complainant to reply.
Accordingly, the Council does not uphold the complaint.
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.