The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an article in The Australian on 3 June 2015, headed “Green protest fines ‘paid by public’” in print and online.
The article reported on a submission by Senator Canavan to a House of Representatives inquiry into the use of the Register of Environmental Organisations, which confers tax-deductible status on donations to registered groups. The article reported that he provided evidence “of environmental organisations soliciting for tax-deductible donations to pay court fines”. The article also said that “following substantial fines to anti-coal protesters who disrupted mining activities at Maules Creek, the Forest Alliance solicited for donations to cover the costs of fines”.
The article stated that calls had been made for a “crackdown” on this practice, and that Senator Canavan had called for “an audit of environmental organisations’ use of tax-deductible status”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article had breached General Principles 1 and 3 of its Standards of Practice which require that reasonable steps be taken to “[e]nsure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading”, “is presented with reasonable fairness and balance”; and “that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on… omission of key facts”, particularly in light of a complaint being made that the Forest Alliance did not solicit tax-deductible donations to pay fines. The Council also asked the publication to comment on whether a sufficient opportunity for a response was provided to organisations named in the article or other adequate remedial action had been taken, as required by General Principles 2 and 4.
The publication said the article was an accurate and fair summary of a long submission by the Senator. It said this article was one of a number of reports on this issue over a period of time, and that the tax-deductibility of donations to registered organisations was of significant public interest.
It said the article did not state that Forest Alliance had solicited “tax-deductible” donations. The publication said that the Alliance was made up of a number of groups and individuals, some of whom had tax-deductible donation status. It also said the Senator’s submission referred to a Forest Alliance spokeswoman (quoted in an earlier news report in a different publication) as saying “donations made to various anti-mining movements would help cover costs of some fines”.
The publication said that the reporter had taken steps to source comments from some of those groups named in the article, although this was not common practice when reporting on parliamentary submissions. It also said it had sought comment and included a quote from prominent activist group GetUp! and that in a subsequent article it reported the Forest Alliance did not have tax deductible status, including a comment sourced from the group that it "does not and has not solicited donations that are tax-deductible to pay for activist fines".
The Press Council considers that the article amounts to a summary of a submission by Senator Canavan to a parliamentary inquiry, and accurately summarises the views expressed in the submission. The Council also notes that the reporter made an effort to contact some of the organisations named in the submission for comment. To the extent the article included factual material in its summary of the submission and included expressions of opinion, it accurately summarised the submission. The Council is satisfied there was no breach of General Principle 1.
The Council also considers that the article summarised the submission with fairness and balance and, for those reasons, finds no breach of General Principle 3.
In light of these conclusions, the Council considers that no remedial action was required but notes in any case that in a subsequent article, the publication provided an opportunity for Forest Alliance to state their position. Accordingly, the Council considers that there was no breach of its Standards in these respects.
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.”