The Press Council considered a complaint by Liam Pickering, an accredited agent for AFL players, about an article in the Herald Sun on 7 June 2016 headed “AFL Player agent Liam Pickering takes biggest hit in Supreme Court” online and “STRATEGIC ERROR WILL COST AGENT” the following day in print, which was accompanied by the SPORT section pictured by-line “360 VIEW Mark Robinson”. The article referred to a judgment of the Supreme Court of Victoria arising out of Mr Pickering’s departure from Strategic Management Australia, a management firm at which he was Managing Director, to establish a new firm. A related article headed “Pickering slam” in print and “Liam Pickering could lose AFL player agent licence after Supreme Court ruling” online was not the subject of complaint.
The article mentioned the Court ordered the complainant “to pay a former business partner … a sum of up to $625,000 in compensation”. It also mentioned “claims of dubious dealings, not least that Pickering took a $90,000 cut of [a player’s] contract and endorsements two months after the pair parted ways” though “[t]he money was returned”; that “Pickering had to pay [his former partner] for lost earnings”; that he “took a major hit to the hip pocket and his reputation”; that “worse might be to come”, with the AFL Players’ Association, which accredits player agents, likely to engage in “some serious questioning” of him following “a case involving as much money as this”; and that this is “the second time Pickering has been involved in a messy exodus from a player management company”.
The complainant said the article was inaccurate, misleading, unfair and unbalanced in a number of key respects, and which were not ameliorated by the related article, which in any event might not have been read by the same readers. He also complained that none of these matters were put to him before publication to get his side of the story.
First, the complainant said it was incorrect to state he had been ordered to compensate his former business partner, as the Court’s order was for him to compensate Strategic Management, in which he had a 40 per cent shareholding. Further, the Court ordered his former partner to purchase the complainant’s shareholding, meaning a significant proportion of the compensation would be returned to the complainant. The related article repeated this error.
Second, the complainant said the article implied he had suffered a catastrophic defeat and that his player management licence was in jeopardy as a result. It failed to refer to serious adverse findings made by the Court against his former partner, including taking substantial sums without disclosure to the complainant, fabricating loan agreements, and giving false evidence. The publication previously reported, in a front page article on 23 October 2014, his former partner’s denial of misusing company funds and asserting that loans were legitimate.
Third, the complainant said he had not engaged in “dubious dealings” and had not taken a $90,000 cut of a player’s earnings and, therefore, it had not been “returned”. An issue had been raised in the case as to which agent was entitled to a commission on a sum of $90,000 but there was no issue about the $90,000 itself and, in fact, no finding about the commission in the judgment.
Fourth, the complainant said it was not true that he had a “messy” exit from a previous management firm or that he had faced questioning from the Players’ Association, nor was there any suggestion his accreditation as a player agent was under threat.
The complainant said he did not take up an offer by the publication to submit a succinct letter to the editor for publication, as it would not sufficiently address the harm done by the inaccuracies in the article. The complainant also said the writer of the article was a former coach and personal friend of the complainant’s former partner and this relationship ought to have been declared.
The publication responded that the article was an opinion piece focused on the broader repercussions of the court judgment for the complainant as a high profile player agent on the receiving end of court orders costing him and associated companies a large amount of money. The publication said it had unsuccessfully sought comment from the complainant for publication in the related article, but was under no obligation to do so as the article was an opinion piece.
The publication said first that the case was seen by the public as a battle between the complainant and his former partner, not with the detail of the particular corporate structures involved, and its reporting of the amount of the judgment was qualified by stating that the complainant could liable for an amount “up to” $625,000, not necessarily the full amount. The publication said it was appropriate to focus its attention on the complainant because of his much higher public profile compared with the lesser known former partner.
Second, the publication said the article dealt with broader issues on which the author was expressing an opinion, and should be considered in the context of the related article, which provided greater detail about the court proceedings, including that the Court ruled in his favour in relation to a counterclaim for oppression. The publication also said it was fair to raise the possibility of an investigation into the complainant’s accreditation as the Players’ Association had previously demonstrated its willingness to be active in investigating such concerns.
Third, the publication said it did not present the assertion about taking a $90,000 cut from a player’s remuneration as fact but as a claim made in the proceedings, which merely provided readers with some important background, and it had stated that the money had been returned.
Fourth, the publication said it was fair to characterise the complainant’s departure from a previous organisation as “messy” because it involved a legal dispute over a non-compete clause, with the previous employer investigating whether the complainant had breached his contract.
The publication said it would be happy to publish a succinct letter from the complainant, outlining his take on the outcome of the court proceedings.
With regard to the alleged conflict of interest, the publication said the journalist concerned was not a personal friend of the other party to the case, nor was he influenced in the slightest by their passing acquaintance, which is not at all uncommon among those involved in the AFL industry.
The Council considers that the Court’s judgment made clear its order was for the complainant to compensate Strategic Management, and for his former partner to purchase the complainant’s 40 per cent shareholding. While some members of the public may have seen the dispute as one between partners, the Council considers that by reporting the outcome in this manner, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the article was accurate and not misleading in this respect.
The Council also considers the article implied the complainant had suffered a significant defeat, and did not refer to serious adverse findings made by the Court against his former partner, or its conclusion that “both parties have won and lost”. While the related article did note one of the aspects on which the complainant’s counterclaim for oppression was upheld, the Council considers that this was not sufficient to ensure fairness and balance in the article complained about, especially given the front page article on 23 October 2014 reporting his former partner’s denial of misusing company funds. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure fairness and balance in this respect. The Council does not have sufficient information to form a conclusion as to the claim the complainant’s player management licence was in jeopardy.
The Council considers the article implied the complainant had taken a $90,000 cut of a player’s earnings, had returned it, and that this was dealt with in the judgment, none of which is established. In reporting these matters, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the article was accurate and not misleading.
The Council considers that a “messy” exit does not necessarily imply any wrongdoing and may simply suggest restraints on behaviour due to compliance with legal obligations. The Council does not consider there was a failure to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy or fairness in this respect.
As the material was inaccurate and misleading in breach of General Principle 1, the publication was obliged to take reasonable steps to provide a correction or other adequate remedial action. The Council considers that the inaccuracies were sufficiently apparent that the publication should have taken steps to correct them, and in failing to do so it breached General Principle 2. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
As the material was also presented without reasonable fairness and balance in breach of General Principle 3, the publication was obliged under General Principle 4 to take reasonable steps to give the complainant a fair opportunity for a reply if reasonably necessary to address the breach. In this case, the publication eventually offered to publish a “succinct letter” from the complainant. However, given the number and complexity of the issues, as well as the delay involved, the Council concludes that this offer did not amount to a fair and timely opportunity for a response. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is also upheld.
With regard to the failure to take reasonable steps to avoid or disclose a conflict of interest under General Principle 8, the Council recognises that a high number of people involved in playing, coaching, or reporting on AFL would be known to each other. In this case, there was insufficient evidence available to the Council to suggest the publication failed to take reasonable steps to avoid or disclose a conflict of interest and having one influence published material. Consequently, this aspect of the complaint is not upheld.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
1. Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading, and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion.
2. Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly inaccurate or misleading.
3. Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on significantly inaccurate factual material or omission of key facts.
4. Ensure that where material refers adversely to a person, a fair opportunity is given for subsequent publication of a reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.
8. Ensure that conflicts of interests are avoided or adequately disclosed, and that they do not influence published material.