The Press Council considered a complaint by the National Welfare Rights Network (NWRN) about articles published in The Daily Telegraph on 30 September 2014. The first article appeared in the print edition headed “Rorters sharing tips to get on disability pension: Bludge School, how to fudge a bludge”; an online version was headed “It’s so easy to fudge a bludge: Online guides used to con doctors into giving out disability support pensions”.
The articles quoted website forums that were said to share information for claimants on how to obtain or remain on the Disability Support Pension (DSP), including the use of “form letters” for doctors. The complaint also referred to an editorial, in print and online editions, headed “Benefits of bludger busting”.
Amie Meers of the NWRN complained that the organisation was inaccurately named in the article as one of four groups that “run” the website forums quoted. It said it did not run a forum and that none of the quotes were from its website. It also said the statement that such “sites also provide form letters to slip to doctors” was false and misleading because the NWRN was the only organisation of the four named in the article that provided a “form letter” for doctors. The complainant said that the form letter is not designed to “con” but is a neutrally worded document, intended to assist claimants and their doctors in providing all relevant information needed by Centrelink to assess a claim.
The complainant also said it had written to the publication after the article appeared requesting a correction. However, rather than making any correction, the publication included comments from the NWRN letter within a subsequent article headed “Bludging guides to stay on”. The complainant said that when the NWRN complained again, the publication offered to run the organisation’s full letter in its letters section. The complainant said it rejected this offer because the letters section is in the rear of the paper, away from the front news section and not prominent enough.
The publication argued that the term “forum” was intended to convey the organisation provided a “forum” where people could access information on the DSP. It also agreed that none of the quotes were from the NWRN website. The publication acknowledged that the original article drew on material provided by the organisation’s website as it was the only one of the four groups mentioned which provided a “form letter” for doctors. However it said the article did not imply the NWRN letter itself was part of a “con”. It said the article was reporting on concerns expressed by the federal government about the number of genuine DSP claims and alerting readers to the opportunity for non-genuine claimants to use online resources to exploit the system.
The publication said it had provided a right of reply to the complainant the day after the article was published, given the second article quoted material from the NWRN’s letter. The publication also said that upon receiving a further complaint from the organisation, it had offered to publish their entire letter or another letter by the NWRN in relation to the issues it raised, but the complainant had not accepted this offer made in good faith.
The Press Council concludes that the article inaccurately and unfairly implied the NWRN ran a forum, that the quotes in the article came from its website, and that the form letter it produced was part of an attempt to “con” doctors, an allegation that was reinforced by the use of the word “slip”. The Council considers that the implication was particularly strong in the online version given the nature of the headline. Accordingly, this aspect of the complaint is upheld.
Given the article’s inaccurate imputations about the complainant’s practices, the Press Council does not accept that using parts of the complainant’s letter in a subsequent article without consulting the complainant was adequate remedial action. However, the publication’s subsequent offer to print the complainant’s letter in full did constitute the taking of reasonable steps under the Council’s standards. It was not obliged to meet the complainant’s request for placement in the paper other than in the letters section. Therefore the Council considers that there was no breach of its Standards in this respect.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
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.”