The Sydney Morning Herald, on its opinion page and in a long editorial on Australia Day, has been relying on the fiction that an overwhelming number of Australians would support a republic upon the succession of Prince Charles. This was based on an error made by the columnist Gerard Henderson, who with his wife, heads the Sydney Institute, a conservative think tank. Dr Henderson’s weekly column is syndicated, which means his error would have been seen in at least the West Australian.
In addition, the Herald has a freely accessible website, so the error is likely to have been seen by many more people world wide than actually buy the Herald. Dr Henderson and his wife, who is also deputy chairman of the republican movement, were actively involved in the latest republican campaign, a”mate for a head of state”.
At long last the Herald has finally published a correction and an apology, one week after the publication of the original error. This correction featured in Dr Henderson’s column on 31 January, 2006: http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/the-fascists-the-left-would-have-us-believe-in/2006/01/30/1138590440560.html?page=2
Dr Henderson was advised, by Newspoll, about the error on the very day it was published. I informed the Herald on the same day by a letter to the editor, and over the next few days in two further letters. The last also related to an opinion piece which was again monumentally wrong about an opinion poll-this one being about the flag.
Not one of my letters was published.
The Herald was under no ethical obligation to publish any of them my letters, but according to the Press Council, it was and is obliged to publish corrections of errors both promptly and prominently. But the Herald has certainly been delinquent on the question of promptness. Whether the apology is sufficiently prominent is in the eye of the beholder.
In any event, at the end of Dr Henderson’s column, on an interesting but unrelated subject, the following appears, in italics: “.Postscript: In last week’s column I incorrectly reported the Newspoll findings on support for Australia becoming a republic if Prince Charles becomes king. The figures are 52 per cent in favour, 29 per cent against and 19 per cent uncommitted. Apologies.”
The column in which the error occurred was published on Tuesday 24 January, 2006, under the headline:”Sorry, mate, but Her Maj’s got that gig”. This may be found at: http://smh.com.au/news/opinion/sorry-mate-but-her-majs-got-that-gig/2006/01/23/1137864866329.html
A central argument in that piece was that the succession of Prince Charles “is one reason the debate about Australia’s head of state will not go away.” Dr Henderson reported that a recent Newspoll found that 66 per cent of Australians would support a republic if Prince Charles became King.
“Herein lays the monarchists’ long-term problem.” he concluded.
As I said above I remonstrated with the editor that day, and again on the following day when I saw an erroneous report on the Newspoll on a Canadian site, which was corrected at my request.
Apart from automatic replies, on 25 January I received the following email from the Herald:
The error has been noted and will be corrected in the Herald.
Jennie Curtin,Letters editor”
So I thought it would be corrected on the following day, Australia Day.
Imagine my surprise when, instead of a correction, the editor wrote an editorial in which he referred to the support for a republic if Prince Charles became King. This was not an ordinary editorial; it was lager than usual, headed” The Australian republic must raise again.” http://smh.com.au/news/editorial/the-australian-republic-must-rise-again/2006/01/25/1138066861483.html
In it the editor said:
“At some point the present barriers to further progress on this issue will be removed. The Prime Minister, John Howard, will retire, to be replaced, in all probability, by one of the growing number of republicans in the Liberal Party. The Queen will either die or abdicate in favour of the Prince of Wales, removing a sentimental barrier in some Australians’ minds to a republic. The republican side believes its support increased substantially when the Prince of Wales married Camilla Parker Bowles. That public judgment is undoubtedly cruel and may also be unfair to both those individuals – but that is politics” Republicans must be ready for the time when the barriers fall. “
The fault in this sorry tale is the Herald’s. Dr Henderson’s was a human error, his passion telling him that the wrong column he read was the percentage of Australians who wanted a republic.
This is the danger to media ethics. If the media is passionately attached to some agenda, the first casualty will often be the truth.
Until next time,