The Australian Press Council has considered a complaint by Anthony Shaw, principal of Glen Park Primary School in country Victoria, about an article in the local Moorabool News on 9 August 2011 headed New buildings cost a king’s ransom.
Mr Shaw had submitted a brief article and photograph about the opening of a new classroom, which praised the Government’s Building the Education Revolution (BER) program for funding the classroom. The newspaper did not use the article but used the photograph with a reporter’s article stating that local schools had been "ripped off by rorting" of BER. It said that according to a public submission by Mr Shaw in 2010 the classroom was over-priced, incomplete and poorly designed. It also said a "dodgy set of steps" had to be replaced so the local MP could open the classroom 12 months after it was built.
Mr Shaw complained that the coverage of his submission was unbalanced and he had not been asked by the newspaper if there had been any relevant changes in circumstance despite having sent a message that he was concerned about what he anticipated would be the tone of the article. He said that if it had done so, it would have been told the main criticisms selected from the submission no longer applied. He also complained that words like "rorting" and "ripped off" damaged the school’s reputation and greatly upset its community. He said the article set out to belittle the BER, the local Federal MP and the school, and it unfairly implied the school was too small to justify the amount spent by the BER. He said the steps had been fixed 9 months before the opening. After the article appeared, he expressed these concerns in a letter to the editor, which was not published, although the editor suggested a meeting to discuss his concerns.
The newspaper replied that the article was based on material on the public record and readers’ concerns. It said there was no need to ask Mr Shaw about any aspects of the story because "our reporter had all the factual information she needed". It did not believe the article belittled the school but it conceded an error about the steps. It said the letter was not "appropriate" for publication but that it had invited Mr Shaw to meet and, after a "cooling off period", might publish a follow-up article based on an interview with him.
The Press Council concluded that the newspaper was not obliged to publish Mr Shaw’s article or some other favourable story about the classroom opening. It was fully entitled to report Mr Shaw's submission to the parliamentary committee. However, it should have specifically asked Mr Shaw whether there had been any relevant change in the 15 months or so since his submission, especially as it had reason to believe that his views might have changed, and should also have asked about the steps.
The newspaper was entitled to report claims that schools had been ripped off by rorting of the BER. But there was not sufficient ground for its implication that Mr Shaw had supported allegations in such terms. It also should have printed his letter or explained why it would not do so. The letter could have been edited readily to achieve appropriate length and content.
These failures led to inaccuracy, unfairness and lack of balance in the newspaper’s coverage. Accordingly, Mr Shaw’s complaint is upheld on those grounds.
The Council recognises that the newspaper is a very small enterprise trying to meet the needs of the local community. It welcomes the newspaper’s initiative in obtaining advice from an experienced country editor about whether it erred in this instance and could improve its methods.
Notes (not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies part of the Council’s General Principle 1: "Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced… ". It also applies General Principle 2: "Where it is established that a serious inaccuracy has been published, a publication should promptly correct the error, giving the correction due prominence".