Bevan Berg claims Stuff (the Fairfax online news source) failed to comply with Principles 1 (Accuracy, Balance and Fairness) and 11 (Corrections) of the Press Council Statement of Principles in relation to a story released on 4 November 2012. The story was headed “Hit squad targets parents on run in Oz”.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

The story related to steps the New Zealand Inland Revenue Department is taking to recover outstanding child support payments owed by people now living mainly in Australia. IRD has established a “Direct Debt Team” (described by Stuff as a “hit squad”) charged with contacting people owing child support payments and collecting overdue amounts. The story referred to the “hit squad” having access to the Australian Government databases, having the right to apply for arrest warrants and to seize defaulters’ Australian property.

Stuff quoted comments made in this context by an IRD spokesman.

The Complaint
Mr Berg says the Stuff story was misleading and misrepresented the manner in which the IRD debt team operates in Australia. Mr Berg says the Stuff piece unjustifiably “attacked” a specific group (presumably New Zealanders with child support obligations who had chosen to move to Australia for legitimate reasons) and misrepresented the relationship between arms of the Australian and New Zealand Governments. Specifically Mr Berg says the IRD debt team has no authority to act in Australia in the way Stuff described. Mr Berg has supplied a letter from the Acting Chief Executive of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and says this amounts to “official confirmation” that the article is misleading. Mr Berg claims the article caused “panic” on a blog site given the wrong suggestion the IRD team had the power to operate in Australia and “detain defaulters” in that country. The article serves to distribute “IRD propaganda”. Mr Berg refers to the article as creating a “fictional beast that uses its powers in the New Zealand jurisdiction to collect outstanding child support debt in the Australia jurisdiction”.

Mr Berg says Stuff’s article was released during the passage of the Child Support Amendment Bill in Parliament. This proposed legislation, according to the story, is aimed at introducing a new formula for calculating child support payments. Mr Berg claims an inappropriate “link” between the story and the proposed legislation.

Mr Berg also says that Stuff failed to correct the errors in the story when these errors were brought to its attention.

The Response
Stuff responds by saying the pieces are balanced and fair. Stuff says the report is based on information supplied to it by IRD’s media advisor in response to questions Stuff asked about the Direct Debit Team IRD had established. These questions were put in response to IRD’s 2012 annual report referring to the establishment of the Direct Debit Team.

Stuff points to verbatim answers provided by the IRD representative as to the recovery actions available to collect outstanding payments due from Australian residents. These actions were consistent or in accord with Australian legislation and extended to arrest warrants, charging orders obtained in relation to real estate and orders for the sale of property to reduce debt. Stuff’s summary of the responses was accurate. Stuff says Mr Berg has not been specific when he claims inaccuracies on its part.

The Decision
While Stuff used some unfortunate language in introducing the story (references to a “hit squad”, to “known associates” and liable parents “skipping the country” hint at criminal or similar culpable behaviour by liable parties) the Council does not find Stuff presented a picture which was inaccurate, unbalanced or unfair.

There is no doubt some people who are required to make New Zealand child support payments now live in Australia. A number of these people are in arrears. The IRD is taking steps to recover these outstanding payments. Contrary to Mr Berg’s claim the story does not suggest IRD was exceeding its powers or authorities in collecting child support payments from people living in Australia (or was wrong by suggesting the Direct Debit Team could act in Australia when it could not). Stuff was entitled to rely on answers provided by the IRD representative. Stuff was not required to assume that the IRD person was providing wrong information.

The Council does not agree that the advice from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs amounts to an “official” confirmation the IRD advice was wrong or that Stuff’s story was misleading. All the Ministry executive said was that the article “was not in all respects an accurate reflection on the way in which the Direct Debit Debt Team, nor in fact Inland Revenue Child Support, operates within the Australian environment”. It is unclear on what basis the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is able to make this remark. Further the inaccuracies the Ministry mentions are not spelt out. They could have been quite minor. Stuff is justified in being concerned that Mr Berg’s claims lack specifics.

The Council does not see any improper connection between the story and the Child Support Amendment Bill.

The Press Council does not uphold the complaint.

Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Sandy Gill, Clive Lind, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.


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