The Press Council has considered a complaint by Ms Dale Gietzelt about a report by Troy Bramston in The Weekend Australian of 11-12 January 2014 headed “Colleagues suspected Gietzelt was a communist” and an opinion piece in the same issue headed “Communist Party’s shadow man pursued utterly discredited ideal” relating to her father Arthur Gietzelt. They were published in print and online.
The principal focus of the articles was whether Mr Gietzelt, who was a Labor Senator from 1970-89 and a Minister from 1983-87, was at any time a member of the Communist Party or had close associations with it. They referred to a range of material from ASIO files, interviews with former Labor Party figures, a book by a former member of the Communist Party and a number of other sources.
The material provided evidence of varying strengths that he had been a member or was reputed to have been a member at least up to his appointment as a Minister or was closely involved in Communist Party activities or had beliefs similar to those of the party or had been the Labor Party’s main link with the Communist Party. The material related to the period up to 1983 but often was not specific about the relevant periods of time.
Ms Gietzelt complained that the material was inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced. She said although a particular ASIO document from 1983 was mentioned, the report did not quote or adequately paraphrase the statement in the document that, due to matters relating to a particular source, “without further corroborating evidence a statement that Gietzelt was a secret Party member would not stand close scrutiny”. She also complained about omission of another ASIO document from 1983 which said that Mr Gietzelt had been and possibly continued to be a secret member but “it was not possible to state precisely when he was or was not”, and “there has been no indication of involvement with [the Party] since 1979”.
Ms Gietzelt said that the articles did not provide a fair representation of the range of views amongst her father’s contemporaries in the Labor Party and, for example, did not fairly present the views of the former Prime Minister Bob Hawke. She said much of the cited material was irrelevant or ambiguous, claims of corroboration were exaggerated, and more attention should have been given to his undoubted contributions in public life.
Ms Gietzelt also complained that the articles were unfair and unbalanced because her opportunity to comment before publication was provided at unreasonably short notice and on very limited aspects, and because the article did not summarise the basis of the denials by her father and his family that he was ever a member of the Communist Party with sufficient prominence. She said the newspaper also failed to publish any of several letters which were subsequently submitted by critics of the articles.
She complained that publication of the articles three days before his funeral was an unreasonable intrusion on the family’s privacy and grief. She said that the writer had a conflict of interest because in 1999 he had unsuccessfully sought Mr Gietzelt’s support for pre-selection in a local government election by the Labor Party branch of which Mr Gietzelt was an influential member. In this context, she said that Mr Bramston had written six lengthy articles within the last five years about her father and the Communist Party.
The publication responded that the articles drew on a very extensive examination of ASIO files as well as personal interviews and other material. It said it had mentioned one of the 1983 ASIO documents as saying that evidence of Mr Gietzelt’s links needed corroboration, but there was no need to quote it or mention the other document because there was a very large number of other ASIO documents (one of which was a few months later in 1983) which stated or suggested that Mr Gietzelt had been a member of the Communist Party or very closely linked with it.
The publication also denied that the range of politicians quoted was unrepresentative and it pointed to the number of other sources to which the article referred. It said the articles never stated conclusively that Mr Gietzelt was a member of the Communist Party and it also referred to the mention made of his achievements in public life.
The publication said that Ms Gietzelt had been given enough time to comment and had made a response within its deadline. The articles had mentioned the denials by Mr Gietzelt and his family, and there was no requirement to publish the critical letters which it received subsequently. It said the articles were published six days after her father’s death, at which time it was reasonable to publish material of this kind on such a significant public figure.
It said the journalist had no relevant conflict of interest because the pre-selection occurred fifteen years ago, the relevant letter was sent to all local branch members, he did not know how Mr Gietzelt had voted, he had not been active in local Labor Party politics for more than a decade and he is no longer a member.
The Council has noted that some of the material cited by the journalist about the precise nature of Mr Gietzelt’s involvement with the Communist Party was uncertain or ambiguous, and often involved statements about his reputed involvement rather than first hand evidence. Other material, however, was reasonably specific, significant and credibly sourced. As the articles did not state a firm and specific conclusion about Mr Gietzelt’s involvement, the Council does not consider that there was a failure to take reasonable steps to be accurate or in any other way to comply with the Council’s Principles relating to accuracy. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
The Council considers that the requirements for fairness and balance in these articles must take account of their length and their publication at a highly sensitive time for the Gietzelt family. In these circumstances, it considers that the passages quoted above in relation to two 1983 ASIO documents should have been quoted or adequately paraphrased, even if accompanied by a reminder of the extensive material to different effect. The Council did not accept the publication’s argument that material referred to in an article printed two years earlier on the same topic was sufficient to provide fairness and balance.
The Council considers that the detailed nature of the articles, including new evidence, meant that Ms Gietzelt should have been given more detail and a longer period than what was effectively only a few waking hours to comment before publication, especially as it occurred at a time of grief. This applies even though the journalist could readily predict the general theme of her likely response. Also, the basis of denials by her father and his family should have been reported in greater detail and more prominently. Failure to do so made it unreasonable not to publish any of the critical letters which were subsequently sent to the newspaper, especially as the articles were lengthy and included serious allegations.
When taken collectively, these factors have led the Council to conclude that there was a failure to provide reasonable fairness and balance and to provide a reasonable opportunity for a balancing response. This conclusion is very dependent on the length, detail and timing of the articles and the extent to which they could reasonably be interpreted as making serious allegations. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is upheld, although not on all of the grounds advanced by Ms Gietzelt.
The Council does not consider that, in principle, publication of an article focusing on Mr Gietzelt’s possible links with the Communist Party constituted a greater intrusion on the family’s privacy and grief than could be justified as being in the public interest. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
The Council considers that the letter on which the allegation of conflict of interest was based shows only a tenuous and fleeting link, the disclosure of which was not required. The number of his other articles about Mr Gietzelt does not invalidate that conclusion. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
The publication pointed out that Ms Gietzelt had made an earlier complaint about the same material to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance and the complaint was not upheld. The criteria and processes for considering such complaints differ significantly from those of the Press Council, which is bound to arrive at its own conclusions in accordance with its own rules.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies four of the Council’s General Principles as they were at the time of publication of the articles:
GP 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced.”
GP 3: “Where individuals or groups are a major focus of news reports or commentary, the publication should ensure fairness and balance in the original article. Failing that, it should provide a reasonable and swift opportunity for a balancing response in an appropriate section of the publication.”
GP 4: “News and comment should be presented honestly and fairly, and with respect for the privacy and sensibilities of individuals. However, the right to privacy is not to be interpreted as preventing publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant public interest. Rumour and unconfirmed reports should be identified as such.”
GP 6: “Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the bylined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed, headlines and captions should fairly reflect the tenor of an article and readers should be advised of any manipulation of images and potential conflicts of interest.”
Notes (not required for publication):
A review of a provisional finding on this complaint was conducted by a Review Panel, in accordance with the procedures for revision and review. Without needing to decide on all grounds for the Review raised by the parties, the Review Panel considered that a Review was appropriate because the complainant had been allowed less time to put her case than had been indicated to her and noted that a Review, once undertaken, would allow consideration of all matters of concern which both the Complainant and the Publication sought to raise.