The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article, “Naturalists object to Shields’ claims”, in Dubbo’s The Daily Liberal on 28 August 2012. It reported objections by a local conservation group to claims by Cr Ben Shields in a campaign leaflet for the local government elections on 8 September that year.
Cr Shields complained that the article criticised him unfairly, particularly in reporting the group’s claims that he had misrepresented “for political gain” the local council’s spending on a bird-wading project at the Dubbo Sewage Treatment Plant. He said the article consisted largely of quotes from the group’s president but he was not given an opportunity to comment. He had sent an email to the editor following publication seeking an opportunity for comment and, although he understood a follow-up article would be published, this did not occur.
The newspaper acknowledged comment should have been sought prior to publication but said it had lacked the staff to do so. It said an email message sent by Cr Shields to the editor after publication was not in a suitable form for publication, did not address the criticisms in the article, and sought to trivialise them. It had intended to publish a follow-up story and regretted that no such story was published, but matters of greater importance and urgency had taken precedence in the remaining time before the election.
The Press Council has previously emphasised that unfairness can arise if a newspaper publishes critical material about electoral candidates without giving them an opportunity to respond before the election. As the article contained very strong criticisms of Cr Shields, and consisted almost entirely of quotes or paraphrased statements from the conservation group’s president, Cr Shields should have been given an opportunity to respond before publication. Failing that, his response should have been published before the election by including it in a follow-up article or by helping him to convert his earlier message into a publishable form. Accordingly, the complaint is upheld.
The Council acknowledges the difficulties faced by the newspaper as a result of staff shortages. However, they do not relieve a publication from the need to ensure fairness, especially in the period before an election.