The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an opinion article, "Auto report is a fantasy tale with a tragic twist", in The Age on 6 February 2014. A sub-heading read: “The Productivity Commission’s damning verdict on the car industry has no basis in reality.”
The author criticised the Commission’s approach to assessing the viability of the car manufacturing industry in Australia, particularly the argument for government assistance. He also discussed the recent decision of General Motors Holden to withdraw from manufacturing in Australia. The final paragraph referred to the Prime Minister’s response to the Holden announcement:
“Abbott, when asked about the Holden workers who will lose their jobs, said they should be grateful they were being liberated from slaving on an assembly line, moving to living off Newstart and Work for the Dole. If this sort of liberation will suit Holden workers on $60,000 per year including overtime, how much more delightful it should be for Productivity Commission analysts on three times that. It can’t happen soon enough.”
According to a transcript of the relevant comments by the Prime Minister, he said:
“Now, some of the Mitsubishi workers have struggled to find work, others have had, I suppose, almost a rebirth of their working lives and I dare say, it will be same for the people currently at Ford and Holden when manufacturing stops. Some of them will find it difficult, but many of them will probably be liberated to pursue new opportunities and to get on with their lives …. I'm confident that the majority of these workers will be able to adapt although I don't for a second underestimate that for many of them there will be some difficult times too.”
The issue considered by the Press Council was whether the article’s reference to Mr Abbott’s comments breached its Standard of Practice in that opinion articles should not misrepresent or suppress relevant facts.
In response to the Council’s request for comment, the publication said the article was clearly presented as an opinionated discussion, not a verbatim report of the Prime Minister’s comments, and did not misrepresent those comments. The article’s reference to them, it said, would be recognised by readers as the writer’s interpretation of those comments, or his view on their import. Readers would be aware of Mr Abbott’s actual words because they had been reported a month earlier, and subsequently been part of the extensive public discussion following the Holden announcement.
The Council considers that, in general, when an article states that a person has “said” something, the description of what he said must either be an accurate quote or a reasonably accurate paraphrase. It is an unacceptable misrepresentation, for example, to state that a person “said” something which, in fact, is merely what the author regards as the consequences of what the person said or as what the person actually thinks, although s/he did not say it. Exceptions may apply where accompanying words or the broader context make it very clear the description does not purport to be an accurate quotation or paraphrase, but the Council considers there is no such justification in this case.
The Council has concluded that the description of what Mr Abbott said was a substantial misrepresentation. The transcript shows he drew a distinction between workers who would find it difficult and those who would pursue new opportunities. It was only the second group which he said would “probably be liberated”. Yet the article stated he “said” workers “should be grateful they were being liberated from slaving on an assembly line, moving to living off Newstart and Work for the Dole”. Mr Abbott neither used the word “grateful” nor referred to Newstart or Work for the Dole.
Accordingly, the Council has concluded that the publication breached the Principle concerning misrepresentation of facts in an opinion article.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
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.”