Press Council rules against editorial directed at ABC

Press Council rules against editorial directed at ABC

The Australian Press Council has ruled against an editorial by The Australian which lashed ABC and took aim at Four Corners reporter Louise Milligan and then-producer Sally Neighbour (both former employees of the newspaper).

The June 2021 editorial “Greatest enemy of truth is those who conspire to lie” commented that “Many at the ABC express their displeasure at being held to account by The Australian. Forget that their own Media Watch has a leery obsession with News Corporation, some less thoughtful ABC journalists, and their flacks, one-time reporters who seem to have forgotten where they came from, decry any form of scrutiny”.

The editorial also said that “Many senior people at The Australian know well the work, the habits and the hubris of Sally Neighbour and Louise Milligan”.

It went on to say, “To be good you often need to be brash, and brave. But to be really good, you need to be beyond reproach. Your loyalty to the truth must be without question. Fairness and balance is your currency. It has to be. Think of the opposite qualities to answer why. The subjects of good journalism, of important journalism, lie and dissemble. Good journalists do not. They rely on the truth. They yearn for it. But they understand the limits. In many respects the natural enemy of a journalist, aside from a public relations hack, or a political flack, is the defamation lawyer. The most dangerous enemy of the journalist is bad, lazy, deceitful journalism.”

ABC’s Louise Milligan lodged a complaint with the APC.

She claimed the article implied that she conspires to lie, is the greatest enemy of the truth, lies and dissembles, is bad, lazy and deceitful, and that she has work habits and hubris which were well known by senior editorial people at The Australian.

She said the language and the tone of the editorial were unequivocally intended to be read as criticism of her and left no room for a conclusion other than that she is of low integrity and deserving of severe criticism based on the experience of senior people at the publication.

She said that anyone reading the editorial would have concluded that it was alleging that she was not an example of a good journalist, but a bad, lazy and deceitful one who conspires to lie. Such imputations were not only inaccurate and unfair, but  they caused her significant offence and distress.

The Australian told the APC the target of the newspaper’s criticism was not Milligan and that there were no specific references to her work and no specific references to her reporting or conduct. It maintained the editorial was about the principles of journalism and how they should be applied, particularly by the publicly-funded ABC.

In its finding the APC recognised an editorial is the voice of a newspaper and is given significant latitude in expressing its views.

But it found the statement “Many senior people at The Australian know well the work, the habits and the hubris of … Louise Milligan” was presented as a statement of fact and not merely an expression of opinion. It took a dim view of “an unavoidable conclusion that she is associated with ‘bad, lazy, deceitful journalism’ and said the editorial, misleadingly and unfairly inferred that such undesirable traits were associated with Milligan’s journalism.

It ruled a breach of General Principles 1, 3 and 6 but no breach of General Principle 4.

Guardian Australia  reported the ABC welcomed the press council decision with managing director, David Anderson, saying, “The ABC stands by Louise Milligan and the Four Corners team and the outstanding, high-quality journalism they continue to perform for the Australian public.”

The Australian has published the APC findings as required.