Press Council complaint about Daily Telegraph article

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On 30 September 2014, the Daily Telegraph in Sydney ran a front page article which was false and misleading. The NWRN has lodged complaints with the Australian Press Council (APC) and Media Watch.

The article was titled “It’s so easy to fudge a bludge – online guides used to con doctors into giving out disability support pensions”. In our opinion, the article made numerous breaches of the APC’s General Principal 1 which requires that factual material be accurate and not misleading. We also think the article included significantly inaccurate factual material and omitted key facts breaching General Principle 2 which requires factual material to be presented with reasonable fairness and balance. This article was one of a number of articles over the last year or so intimating widespread “bludging” and/or fraud by people claiming or receiving the Disability Support Pension (DSP). We are concerned that there may have been a breach of the advisory guideline on bias, as the writer resorted to distortion to advocate a cause.

What was inaccurate and misleading?

First, the article said “the website forums The Daily Telegraph has quoted from are run by ACON, the National Welfare Rights Network, not crazy.net and boredofstudies.net”. This statement is false and misleading:

  • none of the quotes come from the NWRN, and
  • NWRN does not run any website forums.

Second, the article said “the sites also provide form letters to slip to doctors”. As far as we know, NWRN is the only one of the four which has a form letter. The letter is designed to ensure all relevant information is provided (whether supporting the claim or not) so that Centrelink has all the evidence it needs to assess the claim. We are not alone in providing claimants and their doctors with accurate, plain English information. Centrelink has a series of YouTube videos on the topic and Legal Aid NSW also has a publication with a tear off slip. It was false and misleading to imply that our letter, which is accurate and neutrally worded, was part of a “con”.

Third, the headline statement was false and misleading in a number of ways. Doctors do not “give” anyone DSP. That is a decision of Centrelink. More importantly, there is no evidence of an “army of bludgers” or any widespread use of online guides to “con” doctors.  This is what we found on the website forums referred to by the Daily Telegraph:

The boredofstudies forum is a thread where one person (who made most of the comments quoted in the article) made comments unsolicited by anyone. This person’s behaviour was actually criticised by the other forum members until the administrator closed the thread, noting that it was “advocating fraud and bordering on defamatory” – hardly an organised “bludge school”.

The notcrazy.net forum is a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome forum. The thread titled “helpful information when applying for DSP”, from 2009 is a discussion among CFS sufferers about which is the most appropriate impairment table for their condition. The whole thread is actually premised on the assumption that the people seeking information are genuine DSP claimants. Again, far from a “bludge school”.

We wrote to the Daily Telegraph, and on the next day, they did a follow up story which included a statement from our letter that we do not condone any action advice or information designed to game the system. However the article was titled “Bludging guides stay on” and continued to falsely insinuate impropriety on our part “welfare groups……..are freely allowed to provide advice how to pass DSP tests, even if advising people to talk up ailments or withhold information”. The follow up article ignored the accurate and balanced statistical information we provided in our letter to the Daily Telegraph as follows:

“The amount of deliberate social security fraud is acknowledged to be extremely low. With seven million people who receive an income support payment in Australia equals just 0.02 per cent. A recent study found that the extent of fraud was “quite modest…There is no basis for the commonly held view that fraud is rampant in the system.”[1]

  • From 5,734 medical reviews in 2012-13, just 212 pensions were cancelled – 3.6 per cent.[2]
  • Even the Productivity Commission pours cold water on claims that the DSP is available to people who are not medically qualified to receive it, noting that: “It…appears that most people on DSP have significant impairments that genuinely affect their employment prospects.”[3]

 Perhaps the facts would have just gotten in the way of a good story.

[1] Prenzler, T. Australian Institute of Criminology, Responding to welfare fraud : The Australian Experience, Research and Public Policy Series, 2011, p. 9.

[2] Senate Community Affairs Committee, Answers to Estimates Questions on Notice Social Services Portfolio, 2013-14,  Supplementary Estimates Hearings, Question No: 218.

[3] Productivity Commission, Disability Care and Support, Appendix K, p. K16, 2011.