The Press Council considered a complaint from John Nagle, the former Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of NSW workers compensation scheme, icare NSW, concerning 25 articles published in The Sydney Morning Herald. The articles complained of were published between 27 July 2020 and 1 October 2020. A list of the articles is available here.
The articles, which included opinion pieces, concerned the performance of icare and its financial position, and reported criticism of the system by injured workers, referencing a NSW treasury document that said 52,000 injured workers had been underpaid $80 million. The articles also reported on a NSW Government Parliamentary inquiry into the workers’ compensation scheme. In this context, it was initially reported in August 2020 during the parliamentary inquiry that the complainant “had quit after it had emerged he was stripped of a bonus for failing to properly declare his wife had been given a contract with the agency”. It was reported that the inquiry heard that the complainant’s wife was “paid $750 a day for contract work performed between 2016 and 2019, totaling more than $800,000.” It was also reported that the complainant failed to declare in icare’s annual report, “business class flights to Las Vegas to speak at a conference organised by a software company” which the inquiry heard had received “millions of dollars in contracts from icare to provide claims management software” and that the complainant had appeared in a promotional video for the company. It was also reported that the complainant had “refused” to disclose his pay details to the inquiry.
The complainant said that the publication was conducting a campaign that was intended to discredit him, and the ongoing articles about icare issues are inextricably linked to his reputation and capability given his role as the former CEO. The complainant said the tenor of the reporting incorrectly implied corruption or impropriety on his part. In relation to his wife’s contract with icare, the complainant said that his wife was contracted by icare while he was also employed there but before he became CEO and, at that time, he declared a conflict of interest. The complainant later clarified that as an icare executive, the reporting line for the project his wife was engaged to complete, reported to him. Strategies were put in place in response to the conflict of interest. The complainant said that he was not involved in the hiring of his wife or in any decision about her contract renewal or remuneration. The complainant also said the figure of $800,000 was inaccurate. He said that upon being appointed CEO and after an internal investigation, it became apparent that he ought to have made an additional declaration to the icare Board concerning his wife’s employment. The complainant said however, that the investigation confirmed that there had been no intent to deceive on his part and, as required, details of the complaint and investigation were referred to ICAC which took no further action.
Regarding the trip to Las Vegas, the complainant said it was inadvertently omitted from icare’s annual report. The complainant said however, there was no secrecy about this trip and there was a video presentation of a keynote speech given at the conference on icare’s website for some time and it was also promoted in internal staff announcements. The complainant said that the reporting unfairly implied corruption or impropriety on his part.
The complainant said that he “did not ‘refuse’ to disclose” his pay details to the inquiry. He said he was appearing at the inquiry ‘under oath’ and, as he did not have accurate details of his salary and bonuses at the hearing, he took the question ‘on notice’. This meant he was required to provide the information within a specific timeframe, which he subsequently did. In relation to the reports that 52,000 injured workers had been underpaid $80 million, the complainant said the publication omitted to mention the figure came from an icare report which gave a range of possible scenarios with $80 million being a conservative worst case scenario, and the probable range being $15 million to $25 million.
The publication said it stands by its journalism, much of which is backed up directly by Hansard records of the parliamentary inquiry into the state’s workers compensation scheme. Regarding the complainant’s wife being employed by icare, the publication said it did not report that he did not declare the contract’s existence but instead accurately reported that the complainant failed to properly disclose the contract. The publication said that in relation to the $800,000 value of the contract, it did not state in any article that the complainant’s wife was paid this amount directly. Rather, it accurately reported what was said by a director of icare under oath at a parliamentary inquiry that the contract was worth that amount. The publication said it was willing to publish a footnote to clarify that the inquiry was subsequently informed that the value of the contract was $772, 524. Concerning the Las Vegas trip, the publication said the complainant has acknowledged that it ought to have been included in icare’s annual report. In relation to the complainant’s knowledge of his salary, the publication said it accurately reported the comments made by him at the inquiry that he did not know what his salary was for a defined period. The publication said it did initially report that he refused to disclose his salary, but this was later amended to say “Mr Nagle did not disclose his salary”. The publication said the reports that 52,000 injured workers in NSW have been underpaid up to $80 million is based on icare estimates that were put to the parliamentary inquiry and the State Insurance Regulatory Authority.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require that publications 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 (General Principle 1), provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading (General Principle 2), 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 (General Principle 3) and provide an opportunity for a response to be published by a person adversely referred to (General Principle 4).
The Council notes the complainant’s concerns that the volume and tenor of articles concerning icare were intended to discredit him personally. However, the Council has not been provided with any material that is consistent with this view. The Council notes that it is legitimate journalistic practice to comment on parliamentary inquiries and accepts that the publication’s reporting was based on an accurate record of comments made at the NSW parliamentary inquiry, including by the complainant. This includes reporting on the complainant’s failure to properly declare a conflict of interest; that his business trip ought to have been included in icare’s annual report; and comments concerning his response to questions about his salary. In relation to the estimated $80 million reportedly owed by icare to injured workers, the Council accepts this figure is based on information on the public record referred to at the inquiry, which is of significant public interest. The Council notes that the complainant was given a fair opportunity to respond to the matters concerning him but did not pursue it. Accordingly, the Council finds no breach of its General Principles.
The Council acknowledges the publication’s offer to publish a footnote clarifying that the inquiry was subsequently informed that the value of the relevant contract was $772,524. The Council also acknowledges that the publication has amended its original article which stated the complainant had refused to disclose his salary.
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.