Public broadcaster SBS was accidentally sent a draft policy document of the government’s controversial drug testing for welfare recipients trial weeks before the budget in May, but did not report on it.

Crikey understands that someone in Social Services Minister Christian Porter’s office accidentally sent the draft policy document to one of SBS’ political reporters by email in the weeks leading up to the budget. This accidental leak often happens when someone auto-completes an email address in the address field without verifying the address is correct. Guardian Australia journalist Paul Farrell, for example, was accidentally sent an email by an official in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection meant for someone with the same name.

After realising the mistake, the minister’s office contacted the multicultural broadcaster and made a deal with SBS not to run a story before the budget. SBS agreed to not publish the story in exchange for a sit-down interview with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. This interview aired on May 3, and Turnbull talked about his planned trip to the United States and meeting President Donald Trump. It contained no detail of the document SBS had in its hands. 

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As a result, detail of the proposal — which has now been introduced as legislation in Parliament — was not unveiled until budget night a week after the interview.

The policy means 5000 welfare recipients in three trial locations around Australia (the locations have yet to be determined) will be forced to undergo drug tests, and if they fail the tests they will have their welfare payments controlled — whether by a cashless welfare card or by other means — to limit the cash they can access. Those who refuse to take the test will face fines. The Greens have stated they are opposed to the policy, and Labor will refer the legislation to a committee for review, indicating hesitation on the proposal.

SBS did not deny that such a deal to keep the story under wraps had been made, simply stating that there was no pressure from the government to kill off the story.

“SBS maintains high standards of editorial integrity and independence in its news reporting and denies any suggestion of government pressure,” an SBS spokesperson told Crikey in a statement.

When pushed to directly deny the deal with the government, the spokesperson said SBS had no further comment.

A spokesperson for Porter’s office said he could not discuss media outlet discussions with another media outlet. The Prime Minister’s Office also declined to comment on similar grounds.

There is no suggestion SBS boss Michael Ebeid intervened in this case, but the public broadcaster has given in to pressure from politicians in the past. Last year Ebeid admitted he had killed an interview with a politician done by an SBS reporter after that politician complained directly to the CEO about the interview.

“It was a great interview, but it was not obtained the right way. I rang the politician back and told him we would not be putting it to air. If I had not done that, the politician would not have given us another interview,” he said.

SBS sports reporter Scott McIntyre was famously fired from the public broadcaster after then-communications minister Malcolm Turnbull drew Ebeid’s attention to a series of tweets critical of Anzac Day. McIntyre had planned to sue SBS for unfair dismissal, but the case was settled before it ended up in court.

It comes just weeks after SBS shuttered its SBS Comedy page and did not extend the contracts of its staff following a number of complaints from conservative politicians about satire articles critical of them, or the government.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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