Crikey has long regarded the official attendance figures at the Melbourne Grand Prix as a joke but when Save Albert Park lodged a complaint with the Australian Press Council against The Age for continually accepting the figures, it was dismissed. SAP member Keith Wiltshire explains.

Just how does the Press Council reach its conclusions when adjudicating a complaint against a newspaper? Just how sacrosanct are the boosterist claims made by the promoters of Major Events and the press release stories they generate? Is responsible journalism tested as much by its attitude to routine details as by its treatment of the big story?

The Press Council recently dismissed a complaint by a member of the Save Albert Park (SAP) group regarding four articles in The Age between 20 February and 3 April 2004. The Council’s adjudication, no. 1249, appears on its website. The articles were about the Formula 1 Grand Prix at Albert Park, and contained references to attendance numbers. The complaint was that the reports had breached the Council’s Principle, which states that newspapers should not publish what they know or could reasonably be expected to know is
false, or fail to take reasonable steps to check the accuracy of what they report.

The Case

For many years the SAP Group has publicly recorded attendance numbers at the F1 event, using up to 150 counters at all gates for all four days, and has promptly communicated all of its figures to media outlets. The group has extended a standing invitation to those outlets to check its count methodology and records. The SAP figures are rarely reported, and the invitation never taken up. The official Grand Prix Corporation (GPC) figures are routinely given without comment.

The complaint is that The Age has never seriously questioned or investigated the accuracy of the official figures, despite the gross discrepancies between the two sets of figures – as Crikey itself reported in March 2003.

On the basis of its count from 1998 to 2004, SAP believes that the GPC has overstated the figures by at least 40% each year. There is readily available evidence that over the nine years there has been a decrease of at least 30% in the grandstand and corporate spaces available: fewer seats, fewer bums. That evidence has never been reported in The Age. SAP is not the only possible source of contrary evidence. As one of The Age’s most experienced and now departed sports writers, Patrick Smith, wrote about an earlier GP: You can’t walk into Albert Park these days unless you’re sponsored – and if you believe the official attendance figures, get counted twice.

This is not a mere numbers game. As its main justification for the takeover of a major public park for up to 4 months, and massive taxpayer funding of a commercial event, the Victorian Government has for nine years claimed that the GP delivers a considerable economic benefit to the state. This claim is dependent on its supposed popularity with tourists and locals, as evidenced by attendance figures. Obviously, if those figures are grossly overstated, the Government’s justification is a sham. Very much a public interest
matter.

The Judgement

The Press Council pointed out that The Age published a story on 4 March 2004 gave space to SAP – but that story did not raise the attendance issue. It then noted that another story – 7 March 2004 – reported SAP’s claims that the GPC routinely inflates all its figures by up to 40%, expressed scepticism about government claims of economic benefits, and mentioned that exact spectator figures are suspiciously difficult to obtain. Which was precisely the point of the complaint: any local rag should be expected to follow up its
acknowledged scepticism and suspicions with a bit of investigative reporting, especially when millions of public dollars are involved.

But no, the council merely states that “in the area of statistics, especially crowd sizes, there is invariably room for dispute, and the
newspaper has reported that fact”. Hold on. There is obviously room for dispute about numbers at open public rallies and street demonstrations. But the GP is a closed event: entry is controlled, an elaborate ticket system operates, security is tight, and exact attendance figures should be as easily recorded as at any MCG game – as SAP has demonstrated. But the GPC refuses to state how it arrives at its grand round-figure totals.

The Council concludes that there is no obligation on The Age to resolve the dispute. But The Age was not asked to resolve any so-called dispute: it was challenged to take reasonable steps to check the accuracy of what it has routinely reported year after year after year – not as mere claims but as facts – and even long before Ron GP Walker joined the Fairfax board. What price Principle 1 versus press-release journalism?

Peter Fray

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