The Press Council has considered whether its Standards of Practice were breached by the publication of an article in the Herald Sun on 6 July 2015 headed “Welfare reforms ‘needed’”.
The article reported on the Commonwealth Government’s proposed welfare reforms, particularly for the long term unemployed. The first sentence read: “MORE than 70 percent of people on the dole have been milking the tax payer for more than a year.” The following sentence reported that “more than 500,000 people, or 70 percent, on the Newstart Allowance had received it for more than a year”.
The Council asked the publication to comment on whether the article had breached General Principles 1 and 3 requiring that reasonable steps be taken to “[e]nsure that factual material in news reports and elsewhere is accurate and not misleading”, “is presented with reasonable fairness and balance”, and “that writers’ expressions of opinion are not based on… omission of key facts”.
The publication said the article was an accurate and fair report on the Commonwealth Government's policy on welfare reform. It said the report focuses on then Social Services Minister Scott Morrison expressing concern about “long term dole dependence” and arguing for welfare reform based on official unemployment data contained in the story, with a reference to the economic problems being experienced in Greece.
The publication said the story was a factual report of those statistics. It said the term "milking the taxpayer" was consistent with terminology used by the Government to describe its objectives and approach on welfare reform.
The publication referred to other articles in which the Minister reportedly used stronger language in relation to welfare reform, such as “rorting” and “gaming” the system, in reference to welfare recipients. It said the term “milking” had various meanings, including “extract” the expression "milking the system" was not inaccurate or misleading of itself, and was a fair and suitable one as it reflected the tenor of the Government’s position on reforms.
The Press Council considers that the first sentence in the article clearly refers to all of the 70 percent of long term unemployed in suggesting recipients are “milking the taxpayer”, and the term “milking” clearly had a pejorative sense. No basis for that factual statement was identified elsewhere in the article. Accordingly, the Council concludes that the article breached General Principle 1.
The Council notes that a claim that all 70 percent of such recipients were “milking the taxpayer” was not attributed to any government minister. To the extent the reference may have been an opinion of the journalist, the Council notes no facts were presented to support that opinion nor did the article include any balancing explanatory comment. Moreover, the article did not purport to be an opinion piece but rather was presented as news. Accordingly, the article was also a breach of General Principle 3.
Relevant Council Standards (not required for publication):
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.
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.”