The Press Council has considered a complaint from BirdLife Australia about an article published in The Daily Telegraph on 6 December 2016, headed “ENVIRO-MENTAL STATE FUNDS FOR GREEN MOANERS” in print and “Environmental protesters receiving state and federal grants even as they disrupt major projects” online. The print article began on page one, headed “EXCLUSIVE: Taxpayers’ funding for Gang Green”.
The article reported that “ECO-activists who rely on taxpayer millions in funding [are] disrupting major projects and government policies and lawsuits”. It said: “The groups are pocketing the generous state and federal grants to campaign against major government policy decisions” and this “collection of Baird government-funded environment groups have banded together to target the Premier specifically, even protesting outside his Manly electoral office”.
It reported that the “Nature Conservation Council [NCC] … launched five protests against the Baird government in the last year and formed an umbrella activist group called Stand Up for Nature to lead the charge”; that “[f]ive other taxpayer-funded groups including Total Environment Centre, WIRES, Birdlife Australia and the National Parks Association of NSW joined the organisation and started protesting”; and that “[e]ach organisation tapped into a $1.2 million grant offered by The Environmental Trust and were paid between $30,000 and $141,000 over two years to ‘engage’ the community”. The article also featured a table headed “CASH AND CARRY-ON” listing four organisations, firstly BirdLife Australia, which it said “received two grants from the environmental trust, one for $132,000 and another for $963,276”.
The complainant said it is a non-partisan conservation organisation that relies on volunteers to protect birds and is proud of its public standing. It said the article was untrue in suggesting it uses money from government grants to campaign against major government policies. All funds from the NSW Environmental Trust grants referred to in the table, the Saving Our Species Partnership Grants Program and the Lead Environmental Community Groups Program, are used under contract with clear deliverables in targeted species recovery programs.
The complainant said Stand Up for Nature is a loose and diverse group with which it has no formal relationship; it is not represented on its governing board, nor has it received any resources or funding from it. Its only interaction is to allow Stand Up for Nature to use its logo and promote a couple of events on BirdLife Australia’s Facebook page.
The complainant said the facts could have been easily checked prior to publication. However, the only attempt the publication made to check the facts or seek comment was via an email at 5.02pm on the evening prior to publication, which did not provide any deadline and could not be responded to in the limited time available. After reading the article, the complainant promptly submitted a letter to the editor in which it denied using government funds for advocacy, which was published on 8 December. It said a second article, published on 9 December, referred to the earlier coverage without any correction, qualification or reference to the complainant’s denial, and so continued to imply wrongdoing.
The publication said the point of the story was to highlight a public interest concern as to whether taxpayer funds are being used appropriately. It did not state that the complainant had misused money from grants to campaign against major policy decisions. Instead, the article said groups campaigning against the government received government funds to carry out their work and projects. The publication said an audit was established to ascertain whether any of the groups had misappropriated or misused such public money on protests and political campaigns.
It said the complainant is part of Stand Up for Nature, which displays the complainant’s logo on its website. Stand Up for Nature directly received funds through the NCC, which also received an Environment Trust grant. The NCC started Stand Up for Nature to specifically fight various government policies shortly before the complainant joined. The publication said it had information that the $141,000 government grant to the NCC goes directly into funding the NCC’s core costs of operation and its 2015-16 annual report states that its work included conservation groups combining to form the Stand up for Nature Alliance to stop then Premier Baird rolling back land clearing laws, and the complainant was one of these groups. The publication also said while the complainant receives money from multiple grants for specific programs which do not involve advocacy, it also involves itself in protests such as advertising them on its Facebook page.
The publication said its journalist attempted to contact the complainant prior to publication both by email and by telephone and received no response. As the complainant was only one of a number of organisations referred to in the article, it did not consider it appropriate to delay publication until the complainant’s response was obtained. It said following publication, it published the complainant’s letter, so providing it with an opportunity for response. It said the second article was a follow up story focused on the audit of all existing allocations and eligibility criteria and did not name the complainant.
The Council’s relevant Standards of Practice require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion (General Principle 1), 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 an omission of key facts (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or unfair or unbalanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4).
The Council considers that the article presented as a verified fact that the complainant was one of a number of organisations using government grants for advocacy against major government projects. It was not reported in a qualified way or with any attribution to a source.
On the information available, the Council considers that the complainant does not use money from government grants for advocacy or disrupting major projects and government policies. The Council does not consider that the level of the complainant’s engagement with Stand Up for Nature amounted to using grants in such a way.
The Council accepts the publication sought information from the complainant by email prior to publication, and is not able to reach conclusions about the disputed information as to telephone contact. However, the suggestions being made about the complainant were serious, and required greater steps to seek confirmation than were taken by the publication, and there was no apparent urgency requiring publication before taking such steps. The inaccuracy and unfairness was accentuated by the references such as “GREEN MOANERS” and “CASH AND CARRY ON”. The Council concludes that the publication did not take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy, fairness or balance in the reporting. Even if the information presented as verified fact was to be considered an expression of opinion, the publication did not take reasonable steps to distinguish factual material from opinion as required by General Principle 1. Accordingly, it breached General Principles 1 and 3.
The publication promptly published a letter from the complainant in which it was given an opportunity to respond to the impression created by the article. In the circumstances, the Council considers the publication took reasonable steps to provide remedial action and a sufficient response, and did not breach General Principles 2 or 4.
Relevant Council Standards
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.