South Australia’s health department has been told to apologise for sharing posts from Premier Steven Marshall’s Facebook page during the coronavirus pandemic.
An SA Ombudsman’s report, handed down earlier this month, found SA Health’s decision to “share” live-streamed press conferences from Mr Marshall’s Facebook page “promoted, or gave the appearance of promoting” the Liberal Party or the Premier.
SA Health first began live streaming press conferences about COVID-19 directly through its own Facebook page in March.
But in April and May, press conferences were on several occasions shared from Steven Marshall’s official MP Facebook page.
In his report, ombudsman Wayne Lines said the posts did not appear to have included any “party-political messaging”, and that the department shared the information “as a timely means of disseminating … material” while still upholding social distancing requirements in the State Administration Centre media room.
But Mr Lines also found the department “chose not to, or did not turn its mind to” sharing the information from an alternative source, such as a news organisation.
“The department does not appear to have policies that advise staff of the inappropriateness of party-political messaging, and that provide guidance to staff in considering whether social media content is appropriately apolitical, impartial and neutral,” he said.
“By sharing content from the Steven Marshall Facebook account, the department has arguably promoted that account in a way that may have led to that account receiving more followers.
“The department has not explicitly endorsed a political party or a politician… in these messages.
“Nonetheless … the requirement for an impartial and neutral public sector requires a more sophisticated understanding of the nature and effect of communications than the department has demonstrated here.”
Mr Lines said some of SA Health’s social media use during the pandemic had been “wrong” under the terms of the Ombudsman Act.
“I am of the view that the department … has not acted in a manner that is ‘detached from political influence and the influence of partisan interests within the community’,” he said.
SA Health later shared live streams from media organisations, including ABC Adelaide.
The department has been contacted for comment.
Premier says staff not involved
The Premier said he was not seen the ombudsman’s report but said it was “a matter for SA Health” as to whether it needed to review its social media policies.
Mr Marshall said his staff had “absolutely not” directed SA Health to share any posts from his own Facebook page.
Mr Lines said there was no evidence to suggest any of the Premier’s media advisers had asked SA Health to share the posts.
“Similarly, I do not have evidence that the department’s actions in this matter were part of a deliberate pattern of behaviour by the department to promote the Liberal Party,” he said.
Mr Lines said SA Health had already moved to change its approaches and had deleted several posts identified as inappropriate.
He recommended the department refrain from sharing “or otherwise using content from” the Steven Marshall Facebook account, “or any other politically affiliated social media account or website, on its own digital platforms”.
He also recommended social media policies and training procedures be updated, and that the department “publicly acknowledge and apologise for the … errors on its website and the SA Health Facebook account”.
SA Health reported no new coronavirus cases in the state today.