The Maitland Mercury, which says it is Australia’s oldest regional daily newspaper, published a letter to the editor the day before local government elections that was unfair, the Australian Press Council found.
The Sept. 8, 2017 letter was headlined “Family Affair” and said that seven members of one family were nominated for the local council election. The letter said that “if all the family members were elected, there would be a local council ‘with a majority from the one family,'” according to the press council. Maitland is about 100 miles north of Sydney, Australia.
One of the family members running for election, Phillip Penfold, complained that the letter to the editor was inaccurate and unfair, not only in its claims but in its publication the day before the election.
Penfold told iMediaEthics by e-mail that he feels “somewhat vindicated, though this is 8 months too late.”
“The Press Council process took an extraordinarily long time,” he wrote. “I merely sought an apology from Maitland Mercury/Fairfax though this is still not forthcoming.” Penfold also complained about the placement of the ruling in print, and that the paper didn’t publish the ruling on its social media accounts.
“In general, Press Council adjudications do not require action via a publication’s social media channels,” a press council spokesperson told iMediaEthics. “There may be exceptions to this, but not in this matter. Publications are obliged to publish adjudications within a range of pages, or in certain sections of a homepage, as outlined by the Executive Director’s official ‘Publications Requirements’ document sent to the publication.”
Penfold called for an apology, but the Mercury said the letter was “newsworthy, relevant and represented a concern within its community,” according to the press council.
“The complainant also expressed concern about the effect the letter had on his mayoral candidacy, saying that he lost the mayoral election by a small margin and noting that copies of the letter were distributed by his political opponents via social media,” the council explained.
Further, the Mercury noted that throughout the election, it had contacted Penfold for other news reports to obtain his view, but that Penfold stopped talking to the newspaper. Penfold told iMediaEthics he stopped responding to Fairfax Media’s inquiries prior to the election because “I had a number of occasions to disagree with the way the publication was portraying trumped up issues negative to my campaign.” He said he only recalls one instance where he didn’t respond to an inquiry though.
The press council agreed with Penfold that the letter’s publication without any response from Penfold was unfair. The paper should have gotten Penfold’s response to the letter’s concerns the same day, given the election’s timing, the council said.
“The Council considers that the letter suggested that only one member of a ‘family’ should be permitted to stand for elections,” according to the press council. “In this respect, the letter was adverse to the complainant’s candidacy for the position of mayor, because it could be understood as suggesting that to vote for the complainant could contribute to what the writer considered was an undesirable outcome.”