Some insights into the muddy issue of dealing with complaints against the media. When should they get a red card, and when should they be excused?

Lying doesn’t always mean lying, apparently. And errors are sometimes only in need of clarification, rather than correction.

The latest Australian Press Council adjudications are out – with not a single complaint upheld.

There's more to Crikey than you think.

Get more Crikey for just $199 $99.

Subscribe now

Most of the matters concern regional newspapers and local passions, but there is this one concerning a Greg Sheridan column in The Australian that makes me think it would have been good to be a fly on the wall of the adjudication committee.

The Press Council dismisses the complaint, received from Australians for Palestine, but nevertheless notes that after the complainant kicked up, Sheridan published “clarifications” to figures about the impact of terrorism and Hezbollah on Israel

Sheridan’s original piece on 19 January this year stated that terrorists had murdered up to 1500 Israelis a year, and stated that Israel ‘was subject to thousands of rocket attacks from southern Lebanon until it went to war with Hezbollah’.

The Press Council notes:

After representations from the complainant and others, the newspaper published two clarifications from Mr Sheridan in which he amended the figures with lower estimates of 1100 deaths over five years from terrorism and “hundreds” of rocket attacks.

Thousands to hundreds of rocket attacks is a fair old drop, and 1500 deaths a year to 1100 over five years is an equally dramatic “clarification”.

The complainant apparently contests Sheridan’s amended figures as well. Comments the Press Council mildly:

Such disparity in estimates is characteristic of the debate about statistics in Middle-East affairs.

The Oz published a contrary piece in response to Sheridan by academic Kylie Baxter, but did not publish letters from the complainant, although the Press Council clearly thinks that it probably should have.

Presumably the Council did not uphold the complaint because the Oz did publish contrary views, and did “clarify” the figures. This gets you out of jail on most things, so far as the Press Council is concerned.

But it is hard to escape the feeling that The Oz would have been the first to make an almighty fuss if another media organisation had so overstated the facts to support a contentious point of view.

What would have occurred if such a thing had happened at the only media organisation with a rigorous complaints process – the ABC?

Well, we can compare and contrast, because the findings of the ABC’s Independent Complaints Review Panel on a World Today program about interest rates were also released yesterday.

The complaint – from an unidentified source — was about a program on rises in interest rates on 8 August 2007 – in the lead up to the election. The ABC’s economics correspondent Stephen Long quoted Sydney Morning Herald correspondent Peter Hartcher as describing the then Government’s claims on interest rates as “the big lie” and Long also used the word “furphy”.

The ABC’s defence was that in the political context, lying didn’t mean lying.

“As to the’ Big Lie’, [the Complainant] continues to want to take it literally as an accusation of telling untruths. While truth may sometimes be a casualty on the campaign trail, the ABC considers that reasonable listeners would not have understood Mr Long’s remarks to be an accusation of deliberate dishonesty.”

Hmm. Why not, I wonder?

Long himself has what seems to me to be a better based defence.

My reporting on this issue was balanced and fair, and drew on my expertise and experience as well as demonstrable facts and material garnered from well‐placed sources to separate the political ‘spin’ from the substance.

The panel comes down on the side of the ABC:

The use of such political tactics by both state and federal governments is a common occurrence in Australian politics, and in the Panel’s view, is generally seen by the electorate and its voting public as a manoeuvring ploy rather than as deliberate lying. The Panel is satisfied that in the context of this short segment, Mr Long’s reference to “the Big Lie” did not amount to an allegation of a case of actual mendacity on the part of the Prime Minister and Treasurer…

The Panel also said that overall, the World Today’s reporting on the issue had been balanced.

So when does spin become a lie?

Personally I wouldn’t have a problem with Long if he had described the claims as lies (and I think he did, effectively), so long as he backed up the claim with evidence. Surely this is what we want experienced correspondents to do on programs and in items like this – bring their professional judgment to the debate? Balanced should not mean anodine.

Nor would I have a problem with Sheridan stating a point of view – so long as he got his facts straight (which it seems he did not).

So, lots of shades of grey, and no upheld complaints.

There's more to Crikey than you think.

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

And now you get more from your membership than ever before.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
Get more and save 50%