The Press Council considered a complaint from Presbyterian and Methodist Schools Association (PMSA) about five articles published in the Courier Mail in February 2018. The articles were: 14 February “College on the brink” in print and “Elite school Clayfield College in shock debt crisis” online, 16 February “Clayfield College being used as a political football, claims parent”; 23 February “Clayfield College’s big drop in top OP scores revealed”, 23 February “PMSA scandal: Elite schools’ damning fall from grace” and 24 February “Bath boss’ six figure payout” in print and “PMSA schools scandal: Rick Hiley to get six-figure payout” online.
The first article reported on the “independent analysis” undertaken by a “forensic accountant” who was part of a school parents’ group called “Beyond PMSA” into the finances of PMSA, which said that Clayfield College governed by the PMSA, “was on the brink of collapse” as a result of PMSA’s “financial mismanagement”. The second article referred to the “analysis” of PMSA’s finances and reported findings that the PMSA had “mismanaged funds” and reported it had experienced a drop in student numbers and included comments from a parent who expressed concern that the conflict between the PMSA and Beyond PMSA was having a negative effect on student and teacher welfare. The third article referred to the “forensic account analysis” of PMSA finances and reported comments by the report author that PMSA had mismanaged funds. It also reported the school had recorded one “of the biggest drops” in “OP scores” which are used to rank students for entrance to higher education courses at universities and TAFE institutes. The fourth article reported that the four schools managed by the PMSA had all “posted alarming falls” in OP scores and Brisbane Boys’ College had a “big fall” in OP scores. The fifth article reported a former executive manager of the PMSA who resigned “following a long running scandal” had “negotiated a six figure payout”, the “scandal” involving him and that the PMSA had declined to provide details of his resignation and settlement.
All articles included comments from the PMSA responding to the claims of financial mismanagement, the reports regarding drops in tertiary entry scores and its former executive manager. After the complainant raised concern with the publication, the references to “forensic accountant” and “accountant” were amended to “finance and corporate governance specialist”, in the case of one online article late in the Council’s process. A print correction was published stating that the author was not a forensic accountant but was a finance and corporate governance specialist.
The complainant said the description of the report writer as a “forensic accountant”, an “accountant” or after amendment as a “finance and corporate governance specialist” are inaccurate and misleading as he is not a forensic accountant and has no accounting or financial qualifications. By so describing the report writer, the publication gave the claims of PMSA’s “financial mismanagement” legitimacy, when the credibility and validity of the report was questionable. It said the report writer was not qualified and the criticisms in the report led to the publication of further articles critical of PMSA schools. The complainant said the article critical of Clayfield College’s performance unfairly omitted to state that its graduates ranked in the top ten in Queensland, and failed to report that it had outperformed competing schools in the area. Similarly, the article about the performance of Brisbane Boys’ College, had omitted to mention that the college is ranked in the top ten of schools, and unfairly compared it against schools that experienced a rise in their scores and not those whose scores had also decreased. The complainant said the article about its former executive manager included inaccurate material concerning the claimed payout, unsubstantiated hearsay, and that the comments concerning unauthorised downloads are incorrect.
The publication said it accepted that the report writer was not a “forensic accountant” and noted its amendment to the online articles and correction in print to address this. Nevertheless, it said he has financial qualifications through an MBA and over 20 years’ of management experience and that he did conduct a forensic analysis of PMSA’s publicly available financial data. The publication said this analysis was scrutinised by forensic accountants before it was released.
It said the articles concerning the performance of schools managed by PMSA were accurate in that Clayfield College did record a “big drop” in tertiary entry level scores and it contained a “prominent” score table to enable readers to see the result of each school in 2016 and 2017. The article referring to Brisbane Boys’ College’s performance also contained a prominent table which shows its ranking. As to the article concerning PMSA’s former executive manager, the publication said it had written directly to the complainant on two occasions to confirm details of the executive manager’s employment status and negotiations of a payout, but the complainant had not responded directly or fully. The publication said it offered to publish a further article containing the complainant’s response.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require publications to take reasonable steps to ensure factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1) and 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).
The Council notes that although the author of the report has some relevant financial training and experience he is not a forensic accountant, nor does he have formal accountancy qualifications. The Council considers that the description in the articles of the report writer as a “forensic accountant” or an “accountant” were inaccurate and misleading. The Council considers the qualification of “forensic accountant” attributed to the report writer gave the claims in the report a level of credibility that would not be associated with the qualifications of the report writer. Accordingly, the Council concludes that General Principles 1 and 3 were breached in this respect.
The Council considers that the articles referring to the performance of schools managed by PMSA in relation to the tertiary entrance scores were factually correct. The Council is satisfied the publication took reasonable steps to ensure they were not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or an omission of key facts. The Council considers that the articles’ inclusion of tables and their prominence, enabled readers to assess and compare the performance of PMSA schools against other schools based on the same objective measures. The Council does not consider the publication was required to compare PMSA schools against other schools or compare PMSA schools performance with previous years. The Council also notes the article included comments from the complainant on the scores, the schools’ performances and the achievement of its students. Accordingly, the Council concludes that General Principles 1 and 3 were not breached in this respect.
As to the article concerning PMSA’s former executive manager the Council accepts the publication sought comment from the complainant and that it published its response in the article. Although the Council acknowledges the complainant may be restricted in what they are permitted to say concerning their former employees because of privacy concerns, the Council concludes that General Principles 1 and 3 were not breached in this respect.
The Council’s Standards also require that reasonable steps be taken to publish a correction or take other adequate remedial action where published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading. The original qualifications attributed to the report writer were inaccurate and misleading. However given the subsequent steps taken by the publication, including amendment to the online articles and a published print correction—even though the amended description of the author of the analysis may not have been ideal—and its offer to publish an article, the Council does not consider that there was a failure to provide adequate remedial action. Accordingly, there was no breach of General Principle 2 and 4.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication)
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
- Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
- Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
- 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.
- 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.