Bundaberg Regional Council in the sights of Federal Minister over “good news” website

The Bundaberg Regional Council news website has come to the attention of Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher, who has raised concerns about the perceived blur lines between news and marketing.

The taxpayer-funded Bundaberg Now describes itself as “a free community website offering good news online – an initiative of the Bundaberg Regional Council”.

“It is disturbing that this publication is presented to give the impression of being an independent news organization, when in fact it is fully funded by the Bundaberg Regional Council and its coverage of the mayor and council borders on hagiography. “said Mr. Fletcher.

He said the operation was of grave concern to those “who recognize the importance of a sustainable independent media capable of holding the government to account.”

The website and its social media arm have already come under scrutiny from ABC’s Media Watch and media scholar Dr. Denis Muller.

Country Press Australia said the publication was presented as information, but was not independent of political interference.

A screenshot from the Bundaberg Regional Council website Bundaberg Now from December 10, 2021.(Provided: Bundaberg Now / homepage)

CPA committee executive Damian Morgan said the board was also not transparent about the use of taxpayer funds to produce the content.

“When they put out ‘news’ under the name Bundaberg Now, which gives the impression that it is independent, it poses a whole lot of problems,” Morgan said.

Mr Morgan is also the director of the Today News Group, which includes the Bundaberg Today newspaper.

“It is the only council in Australia that has a large-scale multimedia information organization like this.”

Costumed Communications Minister Paul Fletcher watches the media at a press conference in June 2021.
Communication Minister Paul Fletcher said “the coverage of the mayor’s and council’s site borders on hagiography.”(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)

Council not concerned

Bundaberg Mayor Jack Dempsey said the community response to the post had been positive and “filled a void” left by the disappearance of commercial media in the region.

“All we do is get the best bang for the buck and the best bang for the buck for taxpayers so that we can promote our region and build that trust in the communities,” Dempsey said.

a man sits at a desk in front of a computer, holding a wooden turtle
Bundaberg Mayor Jack Dempsey said Bundaberg Now promotes a positive message to the community.(Provided: Bundaberg Regional Council)

He compared the exit of Bundaberg Now to how the AFL has promoted Australian football on its website.

Bundaberg Regional Council CEO Steve Johnston said the publication cost less than $ 5,000 a year to maintain and the communications team existed “largely” before the publication was created.

Mr Johnston said he had not received any complaints of bias or factual inaccuracy regarding the work of staff who contributed to it.

“The Council’s communications officer has editorial control,” he said.

The back of a bus in Bundaberg displays an advertisement for the Bundaberg Now council website
A bus passing through Bundaberg displays an advertisement for the Bundaberg Now city council website in 2019.(ABC Wide Bay: Johanna Marie)

Take the next step

Country Press Australia intends to report Bundaberg’s advice to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Mr Fletcher said matters fell outside his portfolio and fell within the remit of the Queensland government.

“[Minister Fletcher] recommended that we write to the Deputy Prime Minister and also suggested that we could discuss this with the Australian Press Council and maybe even the Queensland Electoral Council, “Morgan said.

Mr Dempsey said there were no plans to change the post.

“We’re just going to keep bringing good news to the community,” he said.

Editor’s note 12/22/2021. This article was updated after an earlier version incorrectly stated that Moreton Daily’s Dolphins News was funded by the Moreton Bay Regional Council.