The Press Council considered a complaint about a front page article in The Daily Telegraph on 26 April 2016 headed “BLUDGERS’ DISGRACE: BOOZE DRUGS DOLE RORT”, with a secondary headline, “EXCLUSIVE: Crooked doctors helping layabouts get out of finding a job”. The full print report was on page four, headed "Cynical bludge makes us sick: Dole grubs shirking work”. The online article was headed “Dole bludgers used medical loophole to avoid getting work”.
The article reported on “[a]n investigation by the Department of Human Services”. The front page began: “TENS of thousands of bludgers are using a medical scam – claiming “illnesses” including drug and alcohol abuse – to get the dole without having to find a job.” It added: “More than 70,000 people – almost 8 per cent of all recipients of Newstart, single parent and youth allowance payments – have been using medical certificates to avoid mandatory job-seeking requirements.” On page four, the article began: “MORE than 70,000 dole bludgers are exploiting a medical loophole to avoid having to get a job by claiming they are too sick to work.”
Following a complaint, the Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article had breached its Standards of Practice.
The Standards of Practice require that reasonable steps be taken to ensure factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading and is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on an omission of key facts (General Principles 1 and 3), and if the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or not reasonably fair and balanced, to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4).
The publication said in the context of the article, reasonable readers would agree with the description of those who would prefer to abuse the social security system and enjoy taxpayers’ money rather than look for work as “dole grubs” and “dole bludgers”. It said the article’s focus was not to vilify welfare recipients but to focus public attention on the extent of the welfare burden on the federal budget.
The publication initially contended that that the figure of 70,000 was accurate and factual, saying that the federal government had identified a “loophole” whereby doctors were being used to exploit the requirement to look for work. However, during the course of the Council’s complaints process, the publication said it had not been its intention to say that all 70,000 recipients were “dole bludgers exploiting a medical loophole” but that government sources supported the notion that tens of thousands of people were exploiting the medical certificate exemption. In November 2016, the publication altered the first sentence of the online version to “Tens of thousands of dole recipients”, and subsequently removed reference to “thousands” altogether, and it also published a print clarification stating the publication accepted that “not all 70,000 were abusing a medical loophole”.
The Council considers that merely because 70,000 Newstart Allowance, Parenting Payment and Youth Allowance recipients provided medical certificates, it does not rationally follow that all 70,000 were “dole bludgers” or were “exploiting a loophole”; medical certificates may be used to demonstrate legitimate inability to work due to illness. Nor did statements attributed to the Minister for Human Services give any support to this suggestion. Accordingly, the Council considers that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure the statements about the 70,000 being “dole bludgers” and “exploiting a loophole” were accurate and not misleading in breach of General Principle 1.
The Council also considers that the headline “Cynical bludge makes us sick: Dole grubs shirking work”, read with the inaccurate statement that 70,000 were “dole bludgers … exploiting a medical loophole”, was also inaccurate and misleading, and could not be regarded as reasonably fair or balanced in its portrayal of welfare recipients. Accordingly, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy or balance in this headline, in breach of General Principles 1 and 3.
The Council considers that the headline “Crooked doctors helping layabouts get out of finding a job” implied that doctors were dishonestly assisting recipients to receive benefits. The only support for this assertion in the story was the disparity in rates of medical certificates being submitted in different geographical areas of Australia; the Minister’s statement that he could not accept that one suburb had eight times more illness than another and some people appeared to be taking advantage of the system; and the suggestion in the article that consideration was being given to “using government doctors”. The Council considers that there was no reasonable basis in this material to make the definitive statement in the headline that “crooked doctors were helping layabouts get out of finding a job”. Accordingly, the Council concludes the publication also breached General Principle 1 in this respect.
As to remedial action, the Council considers that the online amendment and print clarification could have been published shortly after the publication was made aware of the complaint. In any event, the Council is not satisfied from the article or the information provided to the publication that there was a sufficient basis for maintaining that “tens of thousands” are exploiting the exemption. The Council concludes that the amendments did not provide sufficient remedial action and concludes that the publication failed to take reasonable steps to comply with General Principle 2.
Accordingly, the Council concludes that its Standards of Practice were breached in these respects.
Relevant Council Standards
This adjudication applies the following General Principles of the Council.
Publications must take reasonable steps to:
- Ensure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and riot misleading, and is distinguish able from other material such as opinion.
- Provide a correction or other adequate remedial action if published material is significantly in accurate or misleading.
- Ensure that factual material is presented with reasonable fairness and balance, and that writers' expressions of opinion are not based on significantly in accurate factual material or omission of key facts.
- 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.