The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by online reporting in The Age on 2 October 2014 relating to James Hird, coach of the Essendon Football Club in the Australian Football League (AFL).
On 2 October, a headline “James Hird removed as Essendon coach” was posted on the homepage of the publication. It was linked to an article supporting the statement in the headline, however Mr Hird was not in fact removed and continued to be the coach.
After receiving complaints, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material in its original form breached its Standards of Practice requiring reasonable steps to be taken to ensure accuracy, fairness and balance. It also asked for comment on whether the publication had breached the Standard of Practice requiring reasonable steps to ensure that a correction or other adequate remedial action is provided.
The publication said the original statement that Mr Hird had been removed was from a reliable source but it gradually became clear that circumstances had subsequently changed at Essendon. After several hours, the headline was changed to read “James Hird will be removed as Essendon coach in coming days”. Corresponding changes were made in an update to the accompanying article.
The publication said the error was “one of timing” resulting from an extremely fast-moving story which it was “adjusting through the day”. It also said it addressed the online error in its next print edition on 3 October in a front page article headlined “Day of execution becomes stay of execution” and a rear page article “Hird axing delayed”. In addition, there was a follow-up piece headed “Essendon still pointing fingers” on 4 October, in which the journalist wrote that she “regrettably reported wrongly that Hird had already been removed […b]ut the firm belief remains that Hird will not coach Essendon again”.
The publication conceded that the headline on 2 October was inaccurate. The article concerned a matter of widespread interest and considerable importance within the AFL community. Accordingly, it was necessary to be especially rigorous before making the statement, or to make a more qualified and less emphatic statement. The Council concludes that reasonable steps were not taken to justify a report that the removal had already occurred. The Council concludes that its Standard of Practice relating to accuracy was breached in this respect.
The Council’s Standards also require that reasonable steps be taken to publish a correction or take other adequate remedial action where published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading. While the correction in the article of 4 October was insufficiently prominent on its own to meet the Standards, the publication promptly updated the online version of the story, and the headline in the print version of 3 October left no doubt amongst readers that Mr Hird had not in fact been removed as coach. Given the steps taken by the publication, the Council is not satisfied that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action and accordingly, there was no breach in this respect.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
“Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1: Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2: Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading."