The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint about a feature article in The Weekly Times of 9 February 2011 headed Enemy turned friend. The article covered a number of issues relating to Australian Wool Innovation Ltd (AWI), which is the wool industry’s peak body, funded by wool growers and the Australian Government.
A possible conflict of interest
AWI complained that the article was inaccurate and misleading in stating that AWI’s policy of supporting pain relief for sheep receiving the mulesing treatment has been “good for” sales of a particular pain relief product in which two directors of AWI used to have a financial interest but would not disclose whether they continued to do so in the form of royalties. AWI said the alleged effect on sales was conjectural and that the directors’ interest had been disclosed to its Board and their conflict of interest had been appropriately managed by it.
The newspaper said that the effect on sales was inevitable as the product was one of the main forms of mulesing pain relief available on the Australian market. It said the statement about disclosure referred to public disclosure, not just disclosure to the Board.
The Council considered that AWI had not established that the statements were inaccurate or misleading, especially as the newspaper had not alleged that the Board was mismanaging any conflict of interest. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is dismissed.
A report on governance
AWI also complained that the article was inaccurate and misleading in stating that a report on AWI governance was “commissioned” by two members of the Board (rather than the Board itself), was to examine “board room behaviour” and was followed by a “sudden re-arrangement of AWI committees”.
The newspaper conceded that it should have said “initiated” rather than “commissioned” and that only one committee had been re-arranged. It had previously published a prompt correction of another misstatement about the committee changes. It said the reference to boardroom behaviour was a legitimate simplification of the meaning of governance.
The Council concluded that two admitted inaccuracies remain uncorrected. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld and the Council calls on the newspaper to promptly correct the errors. It did not consider, however, that the description of the report’s scope was seriously misleading.
Note (not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced. They should not deliberately mislead or misinform readers either by omission or commission”.