The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by material published on the front page of The Daily Telegraph on 22 May 2014 relating to the Disability Support Pension (DSP).
The material included a large headline “Slackers & Slouch Hats”, above which was a secondary heading “NSW Disability Support Pensioners now outnumber Australia’s total war wounded by more than 44,000”. Alongside the headline was a single sentence of text reading: “The state’s army of disability pensioners has hit record levels with NSW’s tally of DSP claimants soaring almost 20,000 in the past 3 years to 270,415, outnumbering Australia’s war-wounded by more than 44,000.” It was followed by a small note: “FULL REPORT PAGES 8-9”.
Above this material were two large photographs presented in a way which reflected the invitation to draw the comparison made in the secondary heading. One photograph showed a queue of about twenty people, none of whom had an apparent disability. Superimposed were the words “NSW DSP Recipients: 270,415”. The other was a well-known and striking photograph of a severely wounded soldier being helped to walk through the jungle of Papua New Guinea during World War II. Superimposed were the words “Nation’s war wounded: 226,016”.
After receiving a complaint about the front page, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the material breached the Council’s Standards of Practice, including those relating to accuracy, fairness and balance, and to not causing greater offence than is justifiable in the public interest.
The publication said the front page headline was intended to summarise the coverage in that particular edition of the newspaper, which also included articles on later pages and an editorial. It said the front page and other material was also intended to encourage public debate on whether too many people were receiving DSP at excessive cost to taxpayers, which were matters to which the Federal Government had been drawing attention.
The publication said the headline and other material on the front page did not suggest all DSP recipients are “slackers” or undeserving of assistance, and in its editorial the publication had accepted that not all recipients were undeserving. It said the comparison between the numbers of these recipients and the numbers of war-wounded people was valid and fair, especially as a way of stimulating public debate.
The publication also said the photograph of a queue was intended merely to show a large number of people and it had not been stated or implied that the people in the queue had disabilities or were DSP recipients. It said use of a photograph of such people had been deliberately avoided. It said the vast majority of its readers would have understood that it was not intending to offend them, and would not have been offended.
The Council considers that the headline and other material on the front page collectively imply that a high proportion of DSP recipients are “slackers” and should not be receiving DSP. This implication is due partly to the fact that the comparison in the words prominently super-imposed on the two photographs, and in the article on the front page, was between the full number of war-wounded people and the full number of DSP recipients. The implication is also contributed to by the stark contrast between the apparently able-bodied people in the queue and the severely wounded soldier. The impact of the front page presentation was not adequately dispelled by any of the material that appeared on subsequent pages, and evidence provided did not justify the implication. Accordingly, the Council has concluded that the headline, headings and text on the front page breached the Standards of Practice requiring reasonable steps to ensure accuracy and fairness.
The Council also considers the implication that a high proportion of DSP recipients are “slackers” and should not be receiving DSP was offensive to an extent not justified by the public interest. Accordingly, the material also breached the Standards of Practice on that ground.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
This adjudication applies the Council’s General Principle 1: “Publications should take reasonable steps to ensure reports are accurate, fair and balanced”; General Principle 6: “Publications are free to advocate their own views and publish the by-lined opinions of others, as long as readers can recognise what is fact and what is opinion. Relevant facts should not be misrepresented or suppressed, headlines and captions should fairly reflect the tenor of an article and readers should be advised of any manipulation of images and potential conflicts of interest”; and General Principle 7: “Publications have a wide discretion in publishing material, but they should balance the public interest with the sensibilities of their readers, particularly when the material, such as photographs, could reasonably be expected to cause offence.”