The Australian Press Council will investigate apparent errors in the Herald Sun‘s coverage of the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix, after the newspaper published dubious crowd estimates, revenue projections and TV viewership figures without acknowledging their contestability.

As foreshadowed by Crikey last week, the paper, which is carrying the lion’s share of the multi-million dollar print advertising component of the GP Corporation’s promotional spend, has been relentless in its plugging of the loss-making event, with story after story fueling the four-day farce that begins on Thursday.

Now, the print media’s supreme council has been asked to probe four allegations of shoddy reporting this year: “Jobs to go as GP put to razor” by Stephen McMahon, “Love it or lose it warns F1 supremo” by Grant McArthur, “Walker backs GP’s value” by Peter Rolfe and “Doyle to snub the GP” by Paul Tatnell.

The yarns contained unquestioned guesstimates of economic benefits (variously “$160 million” or “$180 million”), TV viewership (variously “300 million” or “350 million”), the Sunday crowd (“119,000”) and the amount of free advertising for Melbourne (“$100 million”). All figures were attributed to Grand Prix chairman Ron Walker.

The complaint, submitted by long-term activists Save Albert Park, accuses the tabloid of three breaches of Press Council principles, including a failure to check the accuracy of the claims, failing to correct a published error and failing to declare a conflict of interest because of the Herald Sun‘s financial relationship with the race.

Tickets to the GP are sold exclusively by the News Limited-owned Foxtix, which the paper makes a habit of plugging in a logo attached to every F1 story in its print edition. In previous years it has been an official GP media partner.

SAP claims the Herald Sun should have been aware of debate over crowd figures and economic benefits, after a smattering of pieces in recent years suggested fledgling disillusionment, especially a March 2009 editorial questioning the $50 million in annual taxpayer losses.

A 2007 Auditor General report on the 2005 race found it failed to deliver any economic benefit to Victoria. Far from the oft-predicted financial boon, it is estimated to have racked up $253 million in total losses since the chequered flag first waved in 1996. A good proportion of that cash, perhaps $20 million, is transferred to the GP’s rights holder in Europe, co-owned by global F1 grouch Bernie Ecclestone and private equity.

Crikey understands the ABC’s respected Media Watch program, which last night screened an impressive takedown of right-wing talkback radio’s reticence to interview mainstream climate scientists, was recently tipped off about the complaint, however Crikey was unable to confirm whether the show’s producers will give the item the green light next week.

A humorous two-sentence response sent by Herald Sun editor Simon Pristel to SAP on March 8 told the activist group’s Peter Logan that “if you have a problem with the GP crowd figures please feel free to take it up with them”. The letter followed a long period of back and forth between Pristel’s office and Logan in which letters were “lost” and email went unresponded to.

This morning, the Grand Prix Corporation send out a pre-race press release stating once again that “300,000” patrons will apparently “flock to the 5.3km lakeside circuit to see it.”

“Imposing new structures for teams and patrons are the key features at an Albert Park circuit revitalised and refreshed for the first race of the 2011 FIA Formula One World Championship,” it screamed.

But SAP hit back, questioning how if ticket sales revenue has dropped 41% and corporate box places have dropped 55% in five years, the predicted attendance could still top 300,000. It also said the flagship Fangio stand had dropped in capacity from more than 14,000 in the late 1990s to just 5000 today. The circuit is rumoured to include only 30,000 seats in total and TV footage reveals large gaps in the standing room areas over the race weekend.

The amount spent on the “new structures” wasn’t reported in the release, with suggestions the works could have cost $20 million.

Last night at the Albert Park circuit, security guards patrolled menacingly as Crikey finished up its 10pm H-grade basketball game. The adjacent Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre will be out of action next Monday, denying hundreds of wannabe athletes their much-needed weekly run around.

Peter Fray

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