The Australian Press Council has considered an article headed "Leaving a sour taste" and editorial headed “Star Chamber alive, well", in the Shepparton News of 2 December 2011. The material related to a report by the Victorian Ombudsman into the governance and implementation of a major water savings project in northern Victoria. The article was written by the newspaper's editor-in-chief Ross McPherson, who is also chair of its publishing company.
Alison Couston complained that the article inaccurately said the Ombudsman’s report revealed only “minor governance issues" in relation to the project and no evidence of substantial misconduct. She pointed to the Ombudsman's conclusion that an independent review should be conducted into the probity of a $1 million grant. She added that Mr McPherson’s membership on a steering committee which lobbied vigorously for the project to be established should have been disclosed. She also said that by belittling the Ombudsman's report the material failed to acknowledge the harm done to many people by the actions which it investigated, thereby lacking fairness and balance.
The newspaper responded that the article was clearly labelled "opinion" and the editorial was also clearly labeled. It said the aim of the material was to illustrate the politicisation of the Ombudsman process, rather than to consider the merits and impacts of the projects. It said the Ombudsman had found no misconduct, let alone corrupt or criminal behaviour, in relation to the grant. It noted that Mr McPherson's membership of the steering committee was stated in bold type at the end of the article.
The Press Council has concluded that the Ombudsman’s report was substantially more critical on relevant matters of governance and administration than was stated in the article. For example, the report criticised inappropriate provision of advice and assistance, disclosure of confidential information without consent, and payments outside operational guidelines. The Ombudsman expressed “concerns regarding the probity” of the large grant, recommending an independent review of the matter, and also referred another matter to the Privacy Commissioner for consideration of possible statutory breaches. Accordingly, the article did not accurately represent the aspects of the Ombudsman's report which it purported to describe. That aspect of the complaint is therefore upheld.
The Council has concluded that in opinion material of this kind it is permissible to express strong views even though they may upset some readers. The subsequent publication of several letters which criticised the article helped to provide due fairness and balance. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
The Council has concluded that Mr McPherson's conflict of interest was adequately disclosed in relation to the article. But it was not disclosed in relation to the editorial, which was published on a separate page. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is upheld.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required to be published):
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”; and part of General Principle 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 ... and readers should be advised of any … potential conflicts of interest".