The Press Council has considered a complaint about a series of six articles in the Bendigo Advertiser from February to May 2013. The articles all concerned Elise Chapman, a councillor with the City of Greater Bendigo Council.
Cr Chapman submitted a complaint after the Press Council asked her if she had any objections to it proceeding with separate complaints lodged by two other complainants. She complained about the accuracy and/or fairness of each article and about the overall coverage of her by the newspaper, which she said was unbalanced. The articles concerned her efforts to keep open a local swimming pool marked for demolition by the Council; a court appearance concerning her repayment of debts arising from a real estate business; her hunger strike to draw attention to the impending sale of a historic public building; her actions in relation to a disabled girl whom she considered to be dancing in an inappropriate way in a public place; her position on a user-pays childcare system; and a court appearance in which she successfully appealed a speeding fine.
The publication said that each of the articles had been accurate and fair, and had been written in response to an issue in the public interest, taking account of Cr Chapman’s role as an elected Council official. In all except the two court reports she had been given an opportunity to comment before publication.
The Press Council’s Principles state that publications should take reasonable steps to ensure that reports are accurate, fair and balanced. The Council noted that Cr Chapman is a public figure and each article was in response to some action by her.
Aspects of the complaint in relation to three of the articles are upheld.
The Press Council has decided the article on the pool inaccurately reported that a Bendigo Council resolution moved by Cr Chapman proposed that $50,000 be spent on mediation, when it was clear from the Bendigo Council’s records she had proposed the amount be spent on investigation and design work that could lead to its re-opening. Accordingly, that aspect of the complaint is upheld on the ground of inaccuracy.
The Press Council considers that, as the report about the court case involving a debt also mentioned Cr Chapman’s campaign for stronger economic management, she should have been given the opportunity to comment, especially as it did not mention the reasons for the debt or that a repayment plan was already in place. While the article disclosed that the debt was owed to the company which published the newspaper, this relationship increased the need to ensure fairness by offering an opportunity for comment. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld on the ground of unfairness.
The Press Council considers it was appropriate for the paper to report on Cr Chapman’s views on the subject of childcare, but it was unfair to simply report her comment as “none of your business” when she had sent an email very shortly after being contacted by the journalist indicating that she would provide a statement if the questions were put in writing. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is also upheld on the ground of unfairness.
Several other aspects of the complaint, however, are not upheld. There were no serious inaccuracies in the articles concerning the hunger strike and the speeding fine, and Cr Chapman was not treated unfairly in them. There was uncertainty concerning some details of the event referred to in the article on the disabled girl. However, the incident had occurred in public, a local disability support organisation had complained to the Bendigo Council about it, and Council staff and the Mayor had made inquiries and held meetings with the organisation. Verbatim quotes from Cr Chapman were included in the article and a long letter from her was published in the newspaper.
The Council noted that the publication could have exercised more care in the selection of photographs of Cr Chapman to accompany the articles involving her court appearances, particularly one which was used in a story on debts owed by her and depicted her laughing.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”.