The Press Council considered a complaint by NSW Labor MP Mr Paul Lynch, about an article published by AAP on 5 February 2015, some weeks prior to the NSW State Election. The online report was published with the headline “Labor MPs at pro-Russian rebel event”.
The article referred to “a meeting organised in support of pro-Russian separatists” that took place at the Serbian Club. It said the event was attended by Mr Lynch, the Shadow Attorney General for NSW, another Labor MP Mr Nick Lalich, the Russian Consul General Sergey Shipilov and Mr Semyon Boikov, the “leader” of the Zabaikal Cossack Society of Australia. It added that Mr Boikov was being monitored by ASIO. It also said that Mr Boikov “spoke during the event, reportedly calling for a swift victory in Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists”, a group “accused of shooting down flight MH17”. It also reported that during the event a “flag representing New Russia - the name given by separatists to the region in east Ukraine they are trying to claim - was raised”.
Mr Lynch said the article’s claim that he had attended “a meeting organised in support of pro-Russian separatists” was not accurate. Mr Lynch said that he had been invited to and attended the 24th St Sava Youth Festival at the Serbian Cultural Club at which the main theme was “community building and support”.
Mr Lynch said he gave a speech “praising the contribution of the Serbian community to local multiculturalism”. He said the event consisted of several hours of Serbian folkloric performances. There were a number of speeches, of which one was by someone he subsequently learned was Semyon Boikov, during which a flag was produced. Mr Lynch said he was not aware it was a flag representing “New Russia”. He said the report unfairly omitted details of the other public officials who were in attendance, which included a Liverpool Council Deputy Mayor, a Bankstown Councillor and a Liberal Party candidate for the NSW seat of Cabramatta.
Mr Lynch said he was first contacted by the publication by text message and two phone calls, about two hours prior to publication. The matter of interest to the AAP was not indicated until an email which arrived at 2:43pm, about 45 minutes prior to publication. No deadline was given for a response. Mr Lynch said at 3pm his press officer advised the publication to expect a response “in the next half hour”, and at 3:48pm a response was given to the publication. However, Mr Lynch said the article appeared just prior to this at 3:38pm “without further warning”.
The publication said the article was factually correct given the information available at the time of publication. It said at the time it had no knowledge of the other persons at the event and noted that none had the high profile of the Shadow Attorney General. It said a number of attempts outlined above were made to get Mr Lynch’s comment during the two hours prior to publication.
The publication noted that when it received a copy of the invitation to the event, which indicated the nature of the event and included Mr Lynch’s response to its questions, the publication had updated the article with this information within about two and a half hours. The publication said the revised article underwent additional checks by a senior editor and careful consideration was applied to ensure this version was fair and balanced. As a result, it said this added to the length of time before it was submitted for posting online.
The publication accepted that Mr Lynch was invited to the Serbian Club for the St Sava Youth Festival, but notes there was “significant pro-Russian sentiment evident” which it identified by the presence of the Russian consul, the flag representing New Russia and the speech by Mr Boikov. Mr Lynch’s profile as a person who could become Attorney General for NSW, made his attendance at the event of significant public interest.
The Council considers the description of the event in the headline and first sentence of the article as a “pro-Russian rebel event” and “in support of Pro-Russian separatists” was not accurate. The use of the term “meeting” and the terms of the article implied Mr Lynch was party to the reported pro-Russian separatist sentiment. Council notes the focus on Mr Lynch’s attendance was compounded by the omission to mention the many other attendees and as a result, the events were not reported with reasonable fairness or balance. The apparent failure by the publication to seek more accurate information in relation to the event from other sources such as the organisers of the event, or to provide more time for the complainant to respond, has resulted in the material not being presented with reasonable fairness and balance. Accordingly, the Council finds a breach of its Standards in regard to accuracy and fairness.
The Council notes the revised article with the headline “NSW: Anger as MP poses with man on ASIO list” (referring to a photograph taken at the event) maintained a focus on pro-Russian separatist elements at the gathering and the description of the event as a “meeting” rather than identifying the occasion as a traditional St Sava day celebration by the Serbian community. The revised article failed to correct inaccurate and unfair aspects of the original article. Accordingly, the Council finds a breach of its Standards in relation to adequate remedial action.
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.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3."