The Press Council has considered a complaint about two reports and a feature article in The Australian Financial Review in March 2013 which referred to statements by Santo Santoro about the possible involvement of Eddie Obeid Jnr with Australian Water Holdings (AWH). They also referred to recent statements on the issue by Senator Arthur Sinodinos, a former Chair of AWH.
The first report was headed "Santo, Sinodinos at odds over Obeid" (in the online version the heading was "Santoro fires back at Sinodinos over Obeid claims"). It quoted Mr Santoro as saying “I was aware that Mr Eddie Obeid Junior was a director of Australian Water”. On this basis, Mr Santoro was described in the report and an accompanying feature article as having “challenged” a claim by Arthur Sinodinos that Mr Obeid had no control over AWH.
The second report appeared two days later and was headed "Santoro backs away from Sinodinos claim". It quoted Mr Santoro as saying about his earlier statement: “I have erred and should have said simply I was aware that Eddie Obeid Jnr was involved in the company”.
Mr Santoro complained that the two reports and the feature article inaccurately and unfairly implied that his initial statement was made as a response and challenge to a statement by Sen Sinodinos. He had been unaware at the time of any relevant statement by Sen Sinodinos and the journalist’s questions to him included only one about Mr Obeid and none about Sen Sinodinos. He said that his statement had related to the only period when he was involved in AWH (as a director of its Queensland subsidiary), which was more than six months after Sen Sinodinos had resigned as Chair of AWH. He said that acknowledgement of an error on his part did not, as claimed in the headline to the second article, amount to “backing away from” a “claim” about Sen Sinodinos that he had never made.
The publication said it was reasonable to assume that when Mr Santoro made his initial statement he had been aware of the statement by Sen Sinodinos. It had been a very widely publicised response to investigations of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales. Also, there was a close connection between Mr Santoro and Sen Sinodinos as they were both prominent figures in the Liberal Party.
It said Mr Santoro’s initial statement was clearly inconsistent with what Sen Sinodinos had said. Even if Mr Santoro had been referring to a period after Sen Sinodinos left AWH, there was no ground for believing that the involvement of Eddie Obeid Jnr had begun only in the short period after Sen Sinodinos left and Mr Santoro became involved.
The Council’s Principles require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy and fairness. The Council considers that the headlines of the two reports (except the print version of the first report) clearly implied that Mr Santoro had known of the relevant statement by Sen Sinodinos about the Obeids and AWH and had knowingly contradicted it. The same applies to the assertions that he had “challenged” the Senator’s claims.
Given the significance and prominence which the publication gave to these issues, the Council has concluded that it was not sufficient for the publication merely to assume Mr Santoro’s knowledge of Sen Sinodinos’ statement rather than to check explicitly with him. Also, the headline of the second report should not have said “Santoro backs away from Sinodinos claim” when he had only corrected his own error.
Accordingly, the complaint is upheld.
Relevant Council Standards (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” and 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”.