News Corp’s Perth Now has been censured by the Australian Press Council over a headline suggesting WA parliament Speaker Michael Sutherland had appropriated funds for personal use.
The article, which was published on June 14, 2014, had the headline: “Hey Big Spender: Speaker happy to charge taxpayers $500 a week for his dining bill – on top of his base salary of $246,000”.
The complainant, Michael Sutherland, claimed the headline unfairly implied he was using taxpayer money for his personal dining expenses and by linking the reference to his salary, it was suggested he was “topping up” his salary with public money.
Sutherland told the Press Council the publication had been provided with the full details of the expenditure by the Speaker’s office but were not included in the article.
Perth Now defended the article, saying it “legitimately scrutinised the spending of the office of Speaker during a time when severe budgetary measures had been implement in the State”.
The publication said the article clearly listed events in detail and this demonstrated the spending was not for personal gain and that it twice offered the complainant the opportunity to submit a piece for publication about the role of the Speaker’s office, but Sutherland had declined.
Sutherland defended the decision to reject the opportunity to write a response, saying it was: “Unsatisfactory because the articles had unfairly implied he had appropriated funds on his personal expenditure, and that this went beyond what could be corrected by an article explaining the general role of the Speaker”.
It was the Press Council’s view that Perth Now’s scrutiny of the Speakers’ expenses, salary and entitlements was a legitimate pursuit of the media and the contents of the article were reasonably viewed and balanced.
However, the Council considered the headline in the print article did not fairly reflect the article’s examination of the spending within the office of the Speaker during Mr Sutherland’s tenure in office and that of his predecessors.
It was the Council’s view that the use of the terms “Hey Big Spender” and “his” when juxtaposed to the references to “dining bill” and “salary” implied the spending was of a personal nature and that the complainant’s office expenses and parliamentary allowances are of personal benefit in the same way as his salary when they are not.
The complaint was upheld.