The Press Council has considered complaints about an opinion article headed “Don’t look now, the white elephants are multiplying” in The Age on 27 May 2013. The article included an assessment of public policies in relation to the National Broadband Network (NBN).
The complaints included alleged misrepresentations in the article concerning the estimated cost of building the NBN and whether “most experts” think it will cost more than double the (then) Government’s estimate; the assumptions underpinning the estimated cost of the network to users, once it has been completed; and the assumed life of the optic fibre used to deliver the service. They complained about other alleged misrepresentations concerning the usage plans that will be available to households, and the existence of a credible business case for the NBN. They also complained that these statements were presented as factual statements, when they were actually opinion.
The publication responded that the journalist had spoken to a number of experts not involved with the NBN who considered the network would cost at least double the Government’s projected figure. This was also the basis of estimates used by the federal Opposition. It acknowledged, however, that the reference to “most experts” in the article should have been to “most independent experts”. It said the likely annual cost to users had been justifiably based on this higher estimate of the cost to build the network and on an assumed 10 per cent take-up rate which the journalist had explained in other articles.
The publication said the journalist’s assumption of a 25-year life for the optic fibre was reasonable because the finance covering the investment would need to be fully repaid over this period. It also said that any argument for a credible business case relied on a very unrealistically low estimate of construction cost and an unrealistically high take-up rate of about 60 per cent. The publication said the article was clearly presented as an opinion piece, not a news report.
The Council considers that the article was clearly identifiable as an opinion piece. Its Standards of Practice require that relevant facts in an opinion piece must not be misrepresented or suppressed. In a previous adjudication the Council said that free public discussion is of such importance in the public interest that, even if there is a credible argument that some misrepresentation of facts has occurred, there may be no breach of its Standards if there is also some tenable basis for the journalist’s assertions.
The Council considers that, except for the statement about a business case for the NBN, the statements cited by the complaints were assertions of fact. Some of these statements had less convincing support than others but the Council concluded there was at least some tenable basis for each of them. The journalist should have qualified his comment about “most experts” and said more about the assumptions underpinning his estimates. He should also have been clearer about the financial basis for the 25-year projection. But the absence of such information was not of sufficient significance to constitute a breach of the Council’s Standards.
Accordingly, the complaints are not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards
(not required for publication by the newspaper):
This adjudication applies 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, 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.