David James. CommInsure expose proves spin doesn’t always win.

Apr 9, 2016

One of the challenges facing business journalists in Australia is the wall of spin they face whenever they are trying to uncover an uncomfortable truth. The spin ranges from outright lying to being highly selective with the facts. Most journalists either struggle to get beyond the wall, decide it is to their benefit not to attempt to scale it, or are simply too busy to even contemplate its existence.

Consequently the spin, by and large, wins. Journalists always need sources to create stories — it is essential to their careers — and so are readily drawn into trade-offs: access to important sources in return for adhering to a certain line in the story.

Or, as is increasingly the case with younger journalists because of the thinning of the ranks in the media industry, they dutifully copy out the media release, a practice known as ‘churnalism’.

That is why any reader of business news should always ask: cui bono? Who profits from the story running?

Most spin doctors are either former journalists, who have personal experience in how the industry works, or they are extremely well schooled in its dynamics. If a story appears in the media, it is more often than not because some spin merchants want it to be there.

Happily, there are exceptions. Gold Walkley winner Adele Ferguson did a brilliant expose of the insurance industry for Four Corners and Fairfax that was definitely not on any spin doctor’s agenda. Indeed it was a demonstration that the craft of spin has its limitations if the journalist is skilled enough to get beyond the wall. And in recent years no Australian journalist has been better at it than Ferguson.

Ferguson’s examination of the Commonwealth Bank’s insurance arm, CommInsure, uncovered many instances of unscrupulous practices, including refusals to pay out to victims of heart attacks, multiple sclerosis, cancer and mental illness. She uncovered instances where insurers looked for additional medical opinions in order to avoid payment.

Her interview with Ian Narev, chief executive of Commonwealth Bank, was a semi-comic exposure of how the art of spin works.

Narev seemed to have been advised to mention the word ‘customers’ as often as possible. A cynic might suggest that it was spin doctor trick number one: reposition the discussion by talking about victims of the bank’s outrageous insurance practices as ‘customers’. The intention seemed to be to muddy the waters: are these people really victims, or just dissatisfied customers?

It was also designed to make it look like the bank is always acting in the interests of its shareholders. Thus we had statements like: ‘The long term risk here is that satisfied customers are good for shareholders as well.’ This comment, somewhere between deflection and banality, seems intended to draw attention away from the specific issue in order to consider the ‘wider context’.

The next step, which that cynic might suggest was spin doctor trick number two, was to claim that the news story was just an unfortunate exception: ‘Being ethical is not the same as being perfect,’ a suitably humble sounding Narev admitted. ‘We need to realise we will make mistakes … one test of how ethical we are is how we respond to those mistakes.’

In other words, ‘Trust us, we mean well.’ It is a technique partly designed to tap into suspicion that journalists only pick out the sensationalist exceptions. The problem in this instance, however, was that, thanks to Ferguson’s incisive investigation and the moral courage of Dr Koh, CommInsure’s chief medical officer, it was clear that the mistreatment was not an aberration; it was business as usual.

Device number three was to introduce vagueness — more deflection. Narev insisted that the ‘culture’ of the bank is ethical. ‘Culture’ is a management buzzword that is sufficiently vague to remove any threat that someone might be held accountable. At the same time it gives the impression that management is in control. What exactly such verbiage really means is anyone’s guess, but that is probably the point.

Ferguson insisted on talking about the ‘human beings’ affected in an attempt to push Narev beyond his corporate-speak and towards a more human response, such as shame or regret or horror, about what had been done to the sick and dying by the bloodless operatives in the company’s insurance arm.

It left one wondering what it must be like to spend one’s days being cruel and indifferent towards people in extreme distress. Presumably, in order to deal with it psychologically, these insurance bureaucrats find ways to de-personalise everything.

Ferguson did not succeed in eliciting a human response, but she did expose the spin. Narev started to come out with sentences like: ‘The reason to do the right thing by customers is because we are here to do the right thing by customers.’ Hard to argue with that. And there’s that word ‘customers’ again.

The Commonwealth Bank chief executive unswervingly stuck to the script. The result was not edifying. It is to be hoped that when his media advisers submit their fees, they give him a discount. This time the spin definitely did not work.


David James is the managing editor of businessadvantagepng.com

This article was first published in Eureka Street on 15 March 2016.


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