The Press Council considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by an article published in The Australian on 6 March 2017 headed “SICK SYSTEM OPEN TO ABUSE: Fake Medicare claims have led to payouts worth millions” in print and “Medicare: Sick system open to abuse” online.
The article, before proceeding to explore flaws in Medicare that made it susceptible to fraudulent claims, began: “Hung Dien Phan came to Australia as a refugee in 1979 after fleeing Vietnam with his family, obtained a degree in medicine from Monash University and then discovered how easy it can be to make serious money in this country.”
Following a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether, in making specific references to the man’s refugee status and ethnicity, it took reasonable steps to ensure factual material was presented with reasonable fairness and balance (General Principle 3), and avoid contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, without sufficient justification in the public interest (General Principle 6).
The publication stated that the man’s refugee status, ethnicity and conviction and sentence for fraud were matters of public record; they had been published in a Victorian Court of Appeal judgment and had also been the subject of considerable publicity.
The publication said the reference to the man’s refugee status was of public interest, and not intended to be pejorative. Rather, it could be interpreted as an example of a refugee making a success of his life in Australia by going to university and graduating in medicine. It said the article did not suggest the man’s refugee status or ethnicity had anything to do with his defrauding Medicare. It said a government department cited the man’s circumstance as one of the prime examples of medical fraud and the only reason it was highlighted was because of the large sum of money involved and the fact it went undetected for seven years. It said the phrase “how easy it can be to make serious money in this country” went to the thrust of the article that the Medicare system is open to abuse.
The publication said any offence, distress or prejudice caused would be minor compared to that caused by the man’s conviction and sentence, and would also be outweighed by the public interest in highlighting such a major case of medical fraud.
The Council considered the detailed personal information provided about the man’s life story—including his refugee status and ethnicity in the opening paragraph—could be considered unbalanced and unfair as it stood in contrast to personal information provided in relation to other cases of medical fraud highlighted which provided no further background beyond the gender of the perpetrators. However, the Council accepted that in investigating background for the story the journalist had been referred to the case by the relevant government department as one of the worst cases of medical fraud in terms of the large sum of money involved and the fact that it went undetected for seven years; that it was routine to commence a complex feature article with some background information on a subject; and that the article did not labour the reference beyond the opening paragraph, before proceeding to an exposition of a broad systemic issue. In the circumstances, the Council concluded that the article was not sufficiently unfair or unbalanced as to breach General Principles 3 and 4.
The Council considered that the references to the man’s refugee status and ethnicity could be considered gratuitous and irrelevant given that he came to Australia as an infant. The references could cause offence, distress or prejudice to people, especially people of Vietnamese origin and refugees generally, by potentially characterising them in a negative light.
However, the Council considered that offence, distress or prejudice caused by the article was not substantial, given the man’s personal information had been published in court records and elsewhere, and there was only one reference to the man’s refugee status and ethnicity in a lengthy article, in which his was a most significant example of medical fraud. Had the article continued to focus on the man’s ethnicity and refugee status, the Council considered that it could have caused substantial offence, distress or prejudice. Accordingly, the publication did not breach General Principle 6 in this instance.
NOTE: The article was written by a member of the Council who is presently on a leave of absence, and has had no involvement in the Council’s complaints-handling process.
Relevant Council Standards
This Adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
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 reply if that is reasonably necessary to address a possible breach of General Principle 3.
6. Avoid causing or contributing materially to substantial offence, distress or prejudice, or a substantial risk to health or safety, unless doing so is sufficiently in the public interest.