ATO vs ABC: taxman pours scorn on Four Corners in estimates

By Stephen Easton

Thursday May 31, 2018

The tax commissioner Chris Jordan took the opportunity of a Senate hearing to blast the national broadcaster this week in defence of his staff, while the ABC stands by its reporting on his agency’s debt-collection practices.

In Jordan’s view, which is basically a more strongly-worded version of the ATO’s rebuttal at the time, aspects of the Four Corners episode like its title, A mongrel bunch of bastards, were “highly offensive” and cast aspersions on the entire staff of the agency.

“Just think of this for a moment,” he began in a measured tone. “How would the staff of the ABC feel if News Limited splashed across its front pages the ABC was simply a ‘mongrel bunch of bastards’ or that they said the whole of Fairfax is nothing but a ‘mongrel bunch of bastards?'”

Jordan had not made a complaint but told the committee he might yet, arguing the report breached the ABC’s editorial charter in his view. He poured scorn on the journalistic description of an “investigation” and said the report made “ridiculous allegations” that tarred the whole agency, based on a few “mostly old” cases.

“In our view there was no real investigation by Four Corners, just a regurgitation of some known, fairly extreme cases to achieve an overblown, sensational story,” said the commissioner.

The report led both sides of parliament to call for independent reviews of the agency and the main reporter Adele Ferguson dismissed the ATO’s disagreements with her work as spin and damage control typical of corporate responses to scandals and public critique. Jordan told the Economics committee he had also asked the auditor-general Grant Hehir to put the ATO’s debt collection practices on his to-do list since the episode went to air.

Jordan also questioned the report’s “accuracy” but the ABC has issued a response standing by it and politely rejecting the taxman’s views on what the title of the episode meant: “One business owner who was interviewed expressed the sentiment that became its title.”

The broadcaster says it was “an important story that addressed an issue of real and pressing significance – whistleblower allegations that small business and individuals have been targeted by the Australian Tax Office to meet revenue goals” and points to the oversight processes it set in motion:

“The report has directly prompted two separate investigations into the revenue office, by the Treasury and by the independent Inspector-General of Taxation, Ali Noroozi.

“Despite his criticisms, ATO Commissioner Chris Jordan has announced that he has asked the National Audit Office to review debt collection procedures, and has also announced a trial of an independent review process for certain small business audits.”

Jordan said the episode failed to report that despite 44 reports and almost 5000 pages of independent review, neither Noroozi nor the auditor-general have concluded there is a systemic problem.

“Is there a systemic problem of abuse of small business? Absolutely not,” he told the committee. “In fact, our relationship with most small businesses, and credible representatives of the small business community is healthy and robust.”

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