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Australian Press Council

ADJUDICATION No. 746 (September 1994)

In upholding complaints againt The Sydney Morning Herald and The Daily Telegraph Mirror, the Australian Press Council views with concern the papers' failure to verify or attribute properly statements made by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). A similar complaint against The Australian was withdrawn by the complainant following the publication of a balancing report.

In stories published on 31 December last year all three papers said in headlines and in their introductory paragraphs that the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) had, after investigation, cleared NPWS officers of charges of corruption relating to the smuggling of wildlife and to the kangaroo meat industry.

The following paragraphs did correctly attribute various statements to the NPWS, but the opening paragraph and the headines were bald assertions.

In fact, ICAC was later reported as saying it had informed the NPWS that only allegations referring to the kangaroo meat industry had not been substantiated. Allegations of the NPWS officers being involved in wildlife smuggling were "subject to ongoing investigation" and a report on the matter was before the ICAC operations review committee. That, according to ICAC, remains the situation.

The complaints against the papers were made by Raymond Hoser, whose book "Smuggled - The Underground Trade in Australia's Wildlife" carried the allegations against NPWS officers. Those allegations were referred by the NSW Minister for the Environment, Chris Hartcher, to ICAC.

In his complaints, Mr Hoser accepted that the papers had published their stories in good faith, basing them on a press release issued by the NPWS. He sought from them either the publication of a letter or a report correcting the mis-information in the original stories.

Some months later, after the Press Council had become involved, The Australian published a story which Mr Hoser accepts corrected some aspects of the original mis-statements and he withdrew the complaint against that paper.

Mr Hoser's suggested letter was strongly worded and marked "not to be edited". The Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph-Mirror printed neither the letter nor a correcting story, and this failure was the nub of Mr Hoser's complaints.

The papers cited legal reasons -- Mr Hoser's publishers are suing the NPWS over the losses allegedly caused by the NPWS' threat to booksellers over the book -- for their refusal.

The Press Council cannot see why some form of letter or correcting story could not have been negotiated.

The complaints against The Sydney Morning Herald and The Daily Telegraph Mirror are upheld. The NPWS' press release was in error (the cause of which the Council has no evidence). The papers should either have been extremely careful to attribute the "cleared of corruption by ICAC" line to the NPWS itself, or checked with ICAC directly. The Press Council commends The Australian for its correcting story, however late it was.


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