It would seem facts don’t matter if you’re pushing an approved agenda, if the Australian Press Council’s recent actions regarding a complaint we lodged are anything to go by.
You may recall last month The Australian ran a 25+ article series called “Target On Guns”. Besides being a lot of stories to run on something that wasn’t really an issue until someone decided to make it one (never mind the fact the paper persisted with the campaign when it was becoming clear the stories were not getting a lot of traction and the reader comments were overwhelmingly negative towards the stories), a number of the stories contained things that were either factually inaccurate, misleading, or lacking context.
We did contact The Australian to alert them to some of the issues and to their credit they did publish an Opinion piece from our president, Graham Park, but they did not correct the errors we identified in their stories.
On December 18, having waited for the series to finish, we lodged a complaint with the Australian Press Council over factual inaccuracies in one of the stories (Federation fail: Patchwork of laws keep sniper rifles on our streets”, (Online) 20 November 2023)
Our complaint, which is limited by Press Council policy to 400 words, read as follows:
We believe the article contains factually inaccurate and unnecessarily emotive content, including the statement “The sniper or assault-style BMG rifles can shoot accurately for hundreds of metres and were originally designed to target tanks and aircraft in World War I.”
The term “sniper rifle” is emotionally loaded, apparently being used in the context of this story to mean “rifle with a telescopic sight” – which is nearly all hunting and target rifles. “Assault-style” is also an emotionally charged and inaccurate term, generally being applied to firearms such as the M-16 and AK-47, which have not only been effectively banned in Australia for decades, but are also nothing like the firearms being discussed in the article.
Nearly all centrefire firearms, particularly those in common hunting calibres, can shoot for hundreds of metres, making the article’s statement misleading because it implies this is an unusual (and concerning) ability. The .50 BMG cartridge was not developed until 1921, and rifles were not specifically designed for anti-aircraft use during WWI.
We believe these items breach [Australian Press Council] General Principle 1 and General Principle 6 (contributing to the community prejudice towards licensed shooters).
The story also contains the statement “Queensland allows .50 calibre weapons in some circumstances and currently has 1762 registered .50 calibre guns.”
We believe this statement is misleading in the context of the article, as the rest of the discussion is around firearms chambered in .50BMG (a specific, large-calibre cartridge) while this section is about all .50 calibre firearms, and does not specifically address that nearly all .50 calibre firearms in Queensland are muskets/muzzleloading rifles, chambered in very old black powder cartridges, or a handful of modern, short-range dangerous game rifles. None of these firearms are in the same category as the .50 BMG rifles being discussed throughout the article. The .50BMG calibre is explicitly prohibited in Queensland as a Category R Weapon, and examples owned by Collectors must be completely welded up.
We further believe the two subsequent paragraphs, instead of clarifying the matter, leave readers with the impression Queensland’s gun laws are somehow deficient in this matter, when this is not the case. We believe this is a breach of General Principle 1 and General Principle 6.
The Australian were notified of these inaccuracies on November 22, 2023 and they have not been corrected at time of lodging this complaint, we believe breaching General Principle 2.
While a number of the stories had issues, we wanted to test the waters before devoting our time and energy to formalising complaints about other stories in the series.
Two days later (December 20) we received the following from the Australian Press Council:
Re: The Australian article “Federation fail: Patchwork of laws keep sniper rifles on our streets”, (Online) 20 November 2023
As you were not personally identified (or directly affected) by the published material, your complaint has been considered in accordance with the Council’s secondary complaints-handling process detailed here.
In assessing your complaint, the Council Secretariat considered the matters outlined in your complaint form, the published material, the Council’s Standards of Practice, the Council’s Complaint-Handling Process and any other information that was considered relevant.
After careful consideration, the Council Secretariat has decided to not proceed further with your complaint. The publication will however be informed of your complaint.
While it has been decided not to proceed further with your complaint, we appreciate you contacting the Council with your concerns. Complaints submitted by members of the community assist the Council in its role in promoting and upholding high journalistic and editorial standards.
In addition to the publication being informed by the Council of your complaint, Council uses the information obtained from complaints and its engagement with the community, to inform the development of its Standards of Practice and Advisory Guidelines for editors and journalists.
Our media director says he cannot recall the last time he saw a genuine Australian Press Council complaint thrown in the bin so quickly by the Council, especially given the time of year – and also notes some of the Adjudications on the Council website have been published several months after the stories they relate to, suggesting the process is not usually a rapid one.
What’s particularly concerning is a number of matters in our complaint related to factual errors – not differences of opinion, but things that were straight-up incorrect; or seemed misleading from our perspective.
The Australian Press Council is supposed to be the watchdog that holds print and online media to account in Australia, and it is very clear that at least in regard to stories trying to whip up a moral panic over legally owned, licensed firearms that they are not prepared to do that – which further erodes the already diminished trust and faith in Australia’s media.
As a licensed firearm owner, if you feel the Australian Press Council should be doing more to hold the media to account when they publish inaccurate, harmful anti-gun stories, you can let them know that (politely, and without ranting) here: https://presscouncil.org.au/contact