Australian Financial Review lashes Press Council for ‘poor practice’ after tugboat worker ruling

AFRThe Australian Financial Review has accused the Australian Press Council of setting a “low bar for australian press council logowhat a media watchdog should bother itself with” after being found to have breached guidelines over a headline from August last year which centred on the pay of tugboat workers.

Today the Australian Press Council (APC) said Fairfax’s national masthead was “inaccurate, misleading and unfair” by using the headline “$390k tugboat workers to strike for 40pc rise” on the article which detailed how Port Hedland based Teekay Shipping was seeking a Federal Court injunction to stop 52 staff from striking.

However, in its response, published in today’s paper, the AFR says what “the Press Council calls its ‘usual process’ is also poor practice for a journalist, let alone a media watchdog,” as it has not tested the evidence from complainant the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers (AIMPE) with Teekay Shipping, its original source for the story.

The strong reaction from the paper comes after new chairman David Weisbrot told Mumbrella he would look at the processes of the APC, and was looking to “reset” its tense relationship with the other daily national paper News Corp owned The Australian.

APC chairman Weisbrot

APC chairman Weisbrot

The complaint was lodged by the AIMPE, which represents the staff, which claimed the headline used wages at the top end of those earned by tugboat mechanics and said the amount the workers were negotiating for as a pay rise was actually 14 per cent over four years, not the 40 per cent claimed in the headline.

While the APC said the article itself was accurate in the way it described the situation “that does not adequately compensate for the failings of the headline”.

“It cannot generally be assumed that readers of a striking but inaccurate headline will also read and analyse all or most of an accompanying article which explains the situation more accurately,” the ruling added.

However in its editorial today (paywall) the AFR took issue with the ruling saying it “reveals a basic flaw in the process used in what the Financial Review agrees is an important regulatory function”.

In the editorial it claims the paper was acting as an intermediary between the union and the company, and had run the numbers based on information supplied to it by Teekay, adding: “Any proper judgement on this reporting requires the views of both sides of the dispute to be considered. And Teekay has not complained about the headline nor the story from August last year.

“In fact, the headline was based on Teekay-supplied information that the Press Council dismisses as inaccurate, misleading and unfair without testing it with Teekay. What the Press Council calls its ‘usual process’ is also poor practice for a journalist, let alone a media watchdog.”

It explains the numbers used were to demonstrate how high the wages were for workers at the company adding: “The effect would have been much the same if the headline had chosen the $335,000 midpoint of their earnings range according to Teekay’s figures.”

The AFR also says there was no dispute the union had lodged a claim for a 38 per cent pay rise, adding there was no “formal evidence” it had lowered the claim.

It concludes: “The Financial Review says that those who did read the headline but not the article would likely draw an accurate and fair conclusion: that a group of very highly paid unionised workers were threatening to use their market power to wring out even more just as a plummeting iron ore price was undercutting their company’s fortunes.

“That truth is reflected in the latest reports that the union is now scrambling to save the mechanics’ jobs amid the further slide in the iron ore price after BHP Billiton flagged it would open up Teekay’s contract for tugboat services to less expensive suppliers.”

Despite this the AFR has published the ruling in full.

The APC has declined to comment on the AFR’s editorial.

Alex Hayes

The APC’s ruling in full:

The Press Council has considered a complaint about an article headed “$390k tugboat workers to strike for 40pc rise” in The Australian Financial Review on 7 August 2014. It reported that tugboat operator Teekay Shipping would seek a Federal Court injunction against proposed strike action over wage and shift conditions by 52 members of the Australian Institute of Marine and Power Engineers (AIMPE) employed at Port Hedland. The article was published two days before the proposed strike and said it would lead to suspension of tugboat services and significant delays to exports worth about $100m per day.

Andrew Williamson of the AIMPE complained that the headline was inaccurate and misleading by implying all 52 engineers earned $390,000 per annum and that the dispute centred on a 40% pay rise. He said the base salary for the engineers was $229,000 and even the three who received housing allowances in Port Hedland did not receive total remuneration as high as $390,000.

The complainant also said it was inaccurate and misleading to allege the claim was for a “40pc rise”. He said an ambit claim for an increase of 38% over four years was made 13 months before the article appeared but had progressively been reduced to 14% over four years by the time the article was published. He said he made this clear to the journalist and the claim was reported accurately in the article itself but the headline reference was misleading and grossly unfair.

The publication responded that the reference to $390,000 accurately reported Teekay as saying that when account is taken of housing and other subsidies, engineers at Port Hedland could earn between $280,000 and $390,000 per year. It said the reference to the 40% claim reflected the union’s formal log of claim which equated to 38% over four years and had been rounded to 40% in the headline.

The publication said it was not possible to encapsulate all of the claims in the headline, but when read together with the article both sides’ positions had been reflected accurately. It said the reduction to a 14% claim had not been placed in writing at that time of publication but the article had quoted the union as saying “it was pushing for a 14 per cent increase, or 3.5 per cent a year”. The publication also said in response to Mr Williamson’s subsequent complaint it had offered him an opportunity to further explain the position in a letter to the editor.


The Press Council has concluded that the headline was inaccurate, misleading and unfair in describing the engineers as “390k tugboat workers” when that figure was at the top of a large range of earnings across which individual tugboat workers earnings might lie. The Council has arrived at the same conclusion about the description of the claim as being for a “40pc rise” when the claim had been reduced to 14% over four years not to a single year.

The article itself described each of these aspects of the situation more accurately than did the headline, but that does not adequately compensate for the failings of the headline. It cannot generally be assumed that readers of a striking but inaccurate headline will also read and analyse all or most of an accompanying article which explains the situation more accurately. As there was no adequate justification for such an assumption in this case, the complaint is upheld.

Updated: A previous version of this article stated the AFR was asked to apologise to the union. That was not the case and we are happy to amend it.


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