The Press Council considered a complaint by the Department of Human Services about an article in The Canberra Times on 30 March 2017, headed “Another debt debacle” in print and “Centrelink hits 21,000 families with bogus FTB [Family Tax Benefit] debts” online. The article reported on Centrelink’s “Family Tax Benefit recovery effort” and in particular, the approximately “21,400 of the [65,000] families hit with the debt notices [who] were able to prove they owed Centrelink nothing”.
The complainant said the article’s references to the FTB debt notices as “bogus”, being sent in “error” and a “debacle” were inaccurate and misleading. It said the 21,000 debt notices were sent to recipients of the benefit if they or their partners had failed to lodge an income tax return, or did not notify the Department that they were not required to lodge an income tax return by the end of the lodgement year. It said the law clearly considers a debt to exist in these circumstances and the debt notices were therefore not “bogus” or sent in “error”. The complainant said these debts were reduced to zero dollars once the recipients lodged their return or indicated lodgement was not required, which allowed the Department to properly assess their entitlements. It said this practice in regard to FTB debts has operated for many years, and that beneficiaries are fully and repeatedly advised of the arrangements and their obligations. It added that the article’s front page placement and its headline reference to this as a “debacle” gave prominence to these inaccuracies.
It said the article’s statements that “the federal government has conceded” Centrelink “hit … 21,000 families with bogus FTB debts” and that the Department “blames the error rate of at least 33 per cent on its clients’ failure to ‘engage’”, imply it accepted the debt notices were “bogus” and an “error”. The complainant said this is also inaccurate and misleading as the Department maintains the debt notices were lawful and correct, and that this was clearly explained in its submission to the parliamentary inquiry on the subject.
The complainant said it was given no opportunity to respond to the assertions in the article prior to publication and, following publication, was denied a correction or letter to the editor in response.
The publication said the description of these debts as “bogus” was accurate because in its view the debts never really existed, and the complainant sent 21,400 families demands to repay debts that were later proven not to be owed. It said debts proven not to be owed are legitimately described as “bogus” debts. The publication said at no point was it reported, claimed, or even implied in the article that the complainant was acting illegally in making its demands for money and the article prominently reported the complainant’s position that its demands for money not actually owed were a direct result of the recipients’ failure to lodge a tax return. The publication said the placement of the article on the front page duly reflects the gravity of a government agency demanding money from more than 21,000 Australian families on a false premise. It said citizens being targeted by the Department for alleged debts not owed should be fully apprised of the processes that led to demands for money in order to adequately defend themselves.
It said references to the government “conced[ing]” it sent “bogus” debt notices and “blam[ing] the error rate … on its clients’ failure to ‘engage’” are accurate and not misleading. It said that the words “bogus” and “error rate” were not directly attributed to the Department as quotes but were based on the publication’s reading of the complainant’s submission to a parliamentary inquiry.
It also said the article relied on, and was a fair and accurate report of, facts disclosed in the complainant’s submission to a parliamentary inquiry, which was produced with the full expectation of it becoming public. In such circumstances, the publication said it had no obligation to contact the complainant to seek comment on the facts disclosed in that document. It said that, as the article included the complainant’s side of the issue and the reporting was not inaccurate, no remedial action was offered.
The Council’s Standards of Practice applicable in this matter require that publications take reasonable steps to ensure that factual material is accurate and not misleading and is distinguishable from other material such as opinion (General Principle 1), 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 an omission of key facts (General Principle 3). If the material is significantly inaccurate or misleading, or unfair or unbalanced, publications must take reasonable steps to provide adequate remedial action or an opportunity for a response to be published (General Principles 2 and 4).
The Council notes that the publication does not dispute that an FTB debt arises once recipients of the benefit fail to lodge their income tax return, or fail to notify the Department they were not required to lodge an income tax return by the end of the lodgment year. The Council is satisfied the approximately 21,000 debts referred to in the article did exist at the time the notices were issued, despite later being reduced to zero dollars. The Council considers that, especially as the complainant’s submission explained how the relevant debts arose, the publication failed to take reasonable steps to ensure accuracy by describing the approximately 21,000 debts as “bogus” and sent in “error”. Accordingly, the Council concludes that General Principle 1 was breached. The Council accepts, however, that there was no requirement to seek the complainant’s comment prior to publication, in circumstances in which it relied on the complainant’s public submission.
As to remedial action, the Council considers that the material was significantly inaccurate and misleading. In not publishing a correction in this regard, or a letter to the editor from the complainant, the Council considers the publication failed to provide adequate remedial action. Accordingly, General Principle 2 was breached.
Given its conclusions on other aspects of the complaint, the Council considers it unnecessary to reach conclusions in relation to General Principles 3 and 4.
Relevant Council Standard
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.