The Press Council considered a complaint by Wade Laube, on behalf of Senator Sean Edwards, about an article published by The Australian on 13 March 2015. The article was headed “Nukes never free, senator told” in print and “Nuclear energy never free, senator Sean Edwards told” online. It followed an announcement by the Senator on 12 March that urged governments to investigate the importation and recycling of spent nuclear fuel.
The article referred to comments made following the Senator’s announcement by a former chairman of Britain’s Office for Nuclear Development, Dr Tim Stone, who was in Adelaide addressing a nuclear energy forum. The article said Dr Stone had “questioned claims” by the Senator and had said that nuclear energy was “no free lunch” and “[e]nergy is never free”.
The complainant said the article and headline implied that Dr Stone was directly rebutting the Senator’s proposed nuclear energy plan, when in fact Dr Stone made clear he had not seen the Senator’s proposal and his remarks were general.
The complainant said the article inaccurately reported that Senator Edwards claimed his “plan to use spent fuel rods to generate nuclear power would revive South Australia’s ailing economy within five years” and that he was “promising it would lead to free power and the abolition of $4.4 billion in state taxes”. The complainant said the Senator had in fact told the publication there was “a scale of possibilities” and a five-year time frame was never mentioned. The complainant said the article was also inaccurate in implying that the Senator had said nuclear power would be free because the Senator had identified in the business model where and by whom the costs would actually be borne.
The complainant said the Senator should have been given an opportunity to respond to comments in the article that “Labor Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis said Senator Edwards was becoming increasingly worried about his upcoming preselection”, as this unfairly implied the proposal was motivated by the Senator’s personal interest in re-election.
The complainant also said he had sought a correction by the publication to clarify that Dr Stone had not seen the proposal and was not questioning it and that the proposal had a funding model. The complainant said that prior to publication of the article, The Australian had agreed to publish an opinion piece by the Senator and it was not reasonable to require him to use that opportunity to correct the factual inaccuracy, when it should be the responsibility of the publication.
The publication, in the initial part of the Council’s complaint process, said that it was inconceivable that Dr Stone had not seen the Senator’s comments and in any event the Senator could have used the opinion piece published after the article to raise his concerns. It also noted that it had published a follow-up article, headed “Nuclear path ‘leads to riches’”, which reported on a speech the Senator was to make about his proposal.
However at a late stage of the Council’s process, after reviewing its records, the publication accepted Dr Stone had not seen the Senator’s proposals and that the article inaccurately implied Dr Stone was commenting on the proposal. It published a clarification, including an apology, to this effect and said that this was adequate redress.
The publication said it was an accurate summary of the Senator’s proposal – which had been covered broadly in the media in the day before the article – to say that it could revive South Australia’s economy within five years, that power could be free and that state taxes of $4.4 billion could be replaced, and it had no obligation to cover every detail of the proposal. It was also consistent with subsequent comments by the Senator and the reporting of them.
The publication also said Mr Koutsantonis’ comments were a small part of the article and would be regarded by readers as a comment made for political purposes.
The Council’s Standards of Practice require reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading (General Principle 1), is reasonably fair and balanced (General Principle 3), that a correction or other adequate remedial action is provided if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading (General Principle 2) and that a fair opportunity is provided for a published reply if reasonably necessary (General Principle 4).
The Council considers that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy and fairness and balance in reporting that Dr Stone had directly questioned the Senator’s proposal and that Dr Stone rejected a claim made by the Senator that energy could be free when Dr Stone had not done so. Consequently, the publication breached General Principles 1 and 3 of the Council’s Standards of Practice, and its later correction did not obviate the breach. Accordingly, the complaint in these respects is upheld.
The Council considers reporting that the Senator claimed his “plan to use spent fuel rods to generate nuclear power would revive South Australia’s ailing economy within five years” and that he was “promising it would lead to free power and the abolition of $4.4 billion in state taxes” was open to a range of reasonable interpretations. In addition, on the material available to the Council, it is unable to form a final view about the communications between the complainant and the newspaper prior to publication. Accordingly, it is unable to determine whether or not reasonable steps were taken to ensure accuracy, fairness and balance in relation to this part of the reporting.
The Council considers that the Labor Treasurer’s comments could reasonably be regarded as a political comment and were not given prominence, and so finds no breach of General Principle 3 of its Standards of Practice in this respect.
While the Council acknowledges and gives credit for the publication’s later clarification about the reporting of Dr Stone’s comments, the Council considers it should have been published earlier. The Council concludes there was a breach of General Principles 2 and 4 of its Standards of Practice. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is also upheld.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
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.”