The Press Council considered a complaint by Anthony Wilson about an article published in the Moorabool News on 24 March 2015, headed “Report to reveal if dog attack court costs were paid”. The article reported on a meeting of the Moorabool Shire Council at which councillors discussed legal action taken by the Shire Council against the complainant following a dog attack.
The complainant said the claim in the article that “Council was forced by State Government legislation to spend $100,000 to take the case to court to have the dog destroyed” was unfair and misleading in that it suggested the Council had no alternative course of action. He also said the claim that the “Wilson family did not in fact pay council’s court costs as ordered” implied they had breached a court order, whereas the order required him to pay those costs as agreed with the Shire Council, or if not agreed as assessed by a Court, neither of which could realistically occur until the 2014/15 financial year. Therefore, the publication was wrong to rely on the Council’s 2013/14 annual report. He also said that an agreement about costs had been reached a month before the article and the fact that there was an agreement was not reported in the article.
The publication said it was simply reporting questions and comments made at the Shire Council meeting and that it had not been advised by Council officers on the night of the meeting of any agreement in relation to costs. It said the comments relating to the costs of legal action following the dog attack were an accurate reflection of the questions asked by a Councillor at the Council meeting about the Council’s financial position. It said the “unexpected legal costs” published in the Council’s annual report for 2013/14 listed the legal costs as an expenditure, which indicated they had not been reimbursed. The publication acknowledged its reporter could have checked details with the Wilson family, but said the complainant’s comment that an agreement would not have been reached until the next financial year meant the matter was ongoing beyond that financial year, and therefore the report was accurate.
The publication said it was not responsible for what options were open to the Shire Council in dealing with the dog attack. It said in reporting that the Council had been “forced” to take the legal action, it had accurately reflected what was said at the Shire Council meeting. The publication acknowledged that the Shire Council may have had other options, but said the report reflected the position the Shire Council had been “forced” into by decisions taken by its compliance officers.
The publication also said many of the earlier discussions about the Shire Council’s action following the dog attack had been heard in confidential Council meetings it was not permitted to report. It said it had requested details of the matter under FOI processes, but this request had been denied. The publication said the Councillor’s questions at the Council meeting about a financial matter relating to the action taken following the dog attack were outside of the confidential Council meetings, so it had been able to include them in the article.
The publication noted that if the complainant has paid the court costs or come to an arrangement with Council to do so it would be amenable to publishing those details, and that the complainant had a right of reply but chose not to exercise it.
The Press Council’s Standards of Practice require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1), reasonably fair and balanced (General Principle 3), that a correction or other adequate remedial action is taken if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading (General Principle 2), and where an article is not fair and balanced, a fair opportunity is given for a subsequent reply (General Principle 4).
The Press Council concludes that the article was both misleading and unfair in stating that the Shire Council was “forced by State Government legislation to spend $100,000” to deal with the matter. Readers were not informed that the legislation offered a number of alternative means for the Council to resolve the matter in a less expensive manner, but the Shire Council had instead chosen to pursue an approach that resulted in greater costs. Accordingly, the reporting was misleading and unfair in breach of General Principles 1 and 3 and the complaint is upheld in this respect.
The statements in the article that the costs had not been paid as ordered were reported as statements of fact rather than being attributed as a report of discussion during the Shire Council meeting. The Press Council considers that as there was no time frame in the court order for the Wilson family to pay costs, it was not reasonable to base the statement that the Wilson family did not pay costs as ordered on Shire Council’s 2013/14 report. The Press Council considers that the publication should have made additional enquiries prior to publication to confirm whether costs had been agreed and paid in the next financial year, especially given the serious nature of the allegations. Accordingly, the Council upholds this aspect of the complaint.
On the information available, the Press Council is not able to determine whether adequate remedial action or an adequate opportunity for a reply was made available in accordance with General Principles 2 and 4. Accordingly, no finding is made in relation to this aspect of the complaint.
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.”