The Press Council considered a complaint from Cr Greg Bennett about a letter to the editor published under the heading “Choose Wisely” in The Northern Star in print on 10 September 2016. The letter, submitted by Cr Simon Clough, Deputy Mayor of Lismore City Council, expressed the writer’s views of what “Cr Greg Bennett, of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party … and his conservative colleagues … will seek to do” if they “get the majority of seats on Lismore City Council”, and the possible implications and risks of such actions, and urged voters to “carefully consider” what they wanted.
The complainant said the letter had been published on the day of the local government election and the publication had not contacted him to inform him and allow him the opportunity to reply in that edition of the newspaper. He said he had previously submitted letters for publication and would have done so had he known the letter was to be published on the day of the election. He said the letter was not accurate but this was the subject of a complaint by him to another body and he did not raise this issue with the Council.
The complainant said he believed the letter was published to cause maximum damage to his electoral prospects. He said the letter was signed off as “Deputy Mayor”, when on the day of the election that position was declared vacant, and it created a misleading or unfair impression that the complainant stood as a Shooters member when he stood as an Independent candidate.
He said he was the leading candidate for mayor at pre-polling and most likely lost the mayoral election due to votes cast on election day. He said a retraction or apology was of no value as the damage had already been done.
The publication acknowledged the complainant did not have an opportunity to respond to the letter and in retrospect, regretted this. However, it said the letter appeared to be Cr Clough’s honestly held view on the stated positions of the complainant and there was no significantly inaccurate material or omission of key facts. It said as the letter run on the “YOUR SAY” page, it was clearly understood by readers to be the writer’s opinion. The publication also said the complainant had not to its knowledge submitted a letter to the editor in the last two years.
The publication denied the letter was published to inflict damage to the complainant’s electoral prospects. It said its coverage had been fair and balanced and it had published articles supportive of some issues raised by the complainant, and provided fair and balanced coverage of all mayoral teams which was more prominent than the letter. It said that when submitted the reference to Cr Clough as Deputy Mayor was accurate and the letter did not state the complainant was standing as a Shooters candidate.
It said the letter ran in print only and the readership includes four other local government areas besides Lismore, all holding elections on that day, so there was only a very small percentage of readers eligible to vote in the Lismore election, certainly not enough to sway the result one way of the other. It noted that after first preference formal votes were counted, the complainant trailed by a significant margin behind the candidate elected as mayor and was in any event, returned as a councillor.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance and writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts (General Principle 3) and where material refers adversely to a person, provide a fair opportunity for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3 (General Principle 4).
The Council considers that the letter set out Cr Clough’s arguments to the electorate against the complainant’s candidacy and the factual material in support of them. As the letter was published on election day, the only fair time for the publication to afford the complainant an opportunity to respond was in the same edition, which did not occur. The Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to present factual material with reasonable fairness and balance and afford the complainant a fair opportunity for reply. Accordingly, the publication breached General Principles 3 and 4 in this respect. The Council considers it was not necessary for this conclusion to determine the effect, if any, of the publication of the letter on the election result.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
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.