The Press Council considered a complaint from Julianne Toogood concerning an article published in the Cairns Post headed “Council’s legal bill revealed” in print and “Cassowary Coast Council to release legal costs information” online on 8 August 2020.
The print article reported “DOCUMENTS proving a Far Northern council’s legal matters are covered by insurance have been made public after the Office of the Information Commissioner ruled in favour of a previously denied right to information request”. The online article reported “Documents detailing a Far Northern council’s legal expenditure have been made public after the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) ruled in favour of a previously denied right to information request.” The article went on to report that a “Cassowary Coast spokeswoman said the information would confirm the CEO’s defamation case was covered by council’s insurance provider ….” The article quoted a spokeswoman from the Cassowary Coast Regional Council (CCRC) saying: “We are grateful that the Office of the Information Commissioner deems certain documents to be of sufficient public interest that it should be released to offer assurance to our community”.
The complainant said the article is false and misleading. The complainant said the publication had relied solely on a CCRC press release and it should have recognised that the CRCC CEO would benefit directly from false information being published. The complainant said the publication should not have only relied on a media release and should have taken additional steps to query the accuracy of the information it had been provided. She said that the publication ought to have been aware that the information provided by the CCRC should be checked given it had reported on public protest rallies about the CEO’s use of public money to fund his personal defamation claim against herself and her husband. She also said the documents released by the Office of the Information Commissioner (OIC) do not prove the insurer is covering the CEO’s defamation claim, and that the publication ought to have contacted her for comment.
In response, the publication said the article was based upon a press release from the CCRC concerning documents being released by it as a result of a decision by the OIC. The publication said that, as indicated in the press release, the Council received a sum of money from its insurer in relation to a number of legal matters concerning the complainant. The publication said the documentation referred to in the press release indicated that the defamation proceedings would be covered by insurance. It said the complainant appears to take issue with the fact that the article does not state that the costs paid by the insurer do not include the CEO’s defamation claim against the complainant. The publication said, however, the press release upon which the article is based does not make this distinction. The publication said the article is an accurate and fair report of the CCRC press release. It also said there was no requirement to seek a comment from the complainant given the article was based on a press release concerning a decision by the OIC and the documentation that would be released by the Council as a result of that decision.
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 is presented with reasonable fairness and balance (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 if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach (General Principles 2 and 4).
The Council considers that publications are entitled to draw heavily on a press release provided that in doing so they comply with the Council's Standards of Practice. It emphasises that any material taken from a press release should be presented in such a way that facts or opinion being asserted by the issuer of the release are clearly distinguishable from those being asserted by the publication itself. In this context, the Council notes that the publication’s statement in the print article only, that documents “proving” the CRCC’s legal matters are covered by insurance was not attributed to the CCRC press release. Therefore, in this instance, the publication went beyond reporting on the content of the press release to affirming its accuracy without taking reasonable steps to confirm the content of the press release was, in fact, accurate. Accordingly, the Council finds a breach of General Principe 1 in this respect. The Council notes that a subsequent amendment to the online article removed the words ‘documents proving.’ Accordingly, the Council finds no breach of General Principle 2.
In relation to General Principles 3 and 4, the Council does not consider that the publication was required to contact the complainant for comment. The Council accepts that the article is based on the press release by the CRCC in response to a decision by the OIC. Accordingly, the Council finds no breach of General Principles 3 and 4.