The Press Council considered a complaint by Jennifer Rankine MP about nine articles published in the print and online editions of The Australian between 3 February and 5 May 2015. They were prompted by her resignation as the South Australian Minister for Education on 2 February 2015 and made repeated allegations concerning Ms Rankine and the appointment of a public servant. The series of articles ended on 5 May following a public statement by the Independent Commissioner Against Corruption stating his investigation concluded that none of the allegations were substantiated.
The complainant said the report on 3 February that she had resigned “amid an investigation by authorities into an appointment of a public servant” (and repeated in substance in five subsequent articles) was inaccurate in that it unfairly implied that she had resigned as a result of such an investigation. The complainant also said the report that her resignation came while “at the centre of ongoing investigations by at least two bodies” was inaccurate given there was only one ongoing investigation. The report of more than one investigation was repeated in five subsequent articles.
The complainant also said reporting in the article on 4 February, “Calls to explain Rankine shuffle”, that “Ms Rankine has said ongoing investigations that first began in 2013…” was an inaccurate paraphrase of a response she made in a radio interview to questions about her reasons for resigning. She said this paraphrase had compounded the implication there was a causal relationship between the reported investigation and her resignation.
The complainant said the articles referred to a matter which had been investigated by the Ombudsman some years earlier and found to have no merit. She said after her resignation as Minister, it became apparent the matter had been referred by that office to the ICAC and, as was stated subsequently, none of the allegations relating to her conduct were substantiated, nor had she known of the referral to ICAC at the time of her resignation.
The complainant also said the article on 5 May, “Ex-minister cleared by ICAC”, which reported on the extraordinary statement by Commissioner Lander, was unfair and unbalanced. She said despite the Commissioner’s finding that “[n]one of the allegations… were substantiated”, the majority of the article repeated the same allegations made in the previous articles and not until the seventh paragraph did the article mention that none of the allegations about her were substantiated. She said she had written a letter to the editor in an attempt to respond to the matters raised, but it had not been published.
The publication said the reporting that the complainant had resigned “amid” the ICAC investigation had been shown to be true. It said the two investigations referred to two bodies involved – the Office of Public Integrity (OPI) and the ICAC – and that at the time it was prevented by South Australian law from reporting the names of the two bodies involved.
The publication also said it accurately paraphrased the complainant’s response during a radio interview when asked about any inquiries that were "ongoing" and notes the complainant had responded: "that may well be the case". It pointed out that the articles included a quote by her that these had “‘absolutely no bearing’ on her decision to move to the back bench”.
The publication said the reporter had endeavoured to contact the complainant for comment and it sent an email to the complainant’s media adviser the day before publication of the first article and another email was sent on 11 February. The publication said the responses it received had been “dismissive” and had referred it to a Hansard report from 2013, but had not directly addressed any of its questions.
It said the article on 5 May had provided an adequate assessment of the facts and outcome of the investigation. It also said the complainant’s letter did not address any new or additional aspects and the publication had not seen it necessary to publish the letter.
The Council concludes that the use of the word “amid” to describe events at the time of the complainant’s resignation was not technically incorrect and was not implying a causal link. However, the Council concludes there was no basis for reporting there were multiple investigations and that the OPI’s referral of the matter to ICAC was not a sufficient basis for reporting there were investigations by two bodies. The publication had apparently been aware of matters referred by the OPI to ICAC, but Council considers a referral by OPI did not amount to an “investigation”.
The purported paraphrasing of the complainant’s remarks in the article on 4 February as “Ms Rankine has said ongoing investigations that first began in 2013…” was not an accurate paraphrase and repeated the inaccuracy. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
The Council notes the final article on 5 May is headed “Ex-minister cleared by ICAC”, but the main section of article unfairly reprises the allegations that had been found to be unsubstantiated and not until late in the article is the clearance by the ICAC Commissioner mentioned. Accordingly, the Council concludes the article is not fair or balanced and this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
In considering whether the complainant was provided a fair opportunity to respond to what was reported, the Council takes account of the publication’s attempts to solicit comments, the substance of the article published on 5 May, and that the letter to the editor submitted by the complainant in substance focuses on the principal issues addressed in that article. The Council concludes that no case had been made for any further correction and accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
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.”