Ideasroom

Media must interrogate menacing privacy breaches

The media continues to miss the 19th century morality behind an out of control punitive culture at MSD. It's time to step up, writes Susan St John.

A mentally ill beneficiary whose malicious neighbour dobbed her in for so-called ‘relationship fraud’ claims her entire life was ruined by investigation over a long period. This was reported here by Radio New Zealand on May 17.

It started when she was contacted by the benefit fraud unit by phone and given the impossible task of finding screeds of personal documents for them, such as bank statements, in only a few days. Clearly intimidated, she gave them permission to access what they needed and was told she would hear in a few weeks. 

Instead, even knowing her mental condition, they left her hanging in extreme stress for a year. Even her friends were contacted by the fraud unit seeking evidence from them of the relationship she was supposed to be having with the boarder. 

The case was finally resolved after five years, five suicide attempts by the beneficiary and a benefits review that ‘150 percent’ exonerated her and found there was no relationship. The benefit fraud unit can cross that one off their list, but her life has been left in tatters and she continues to endure possibly irreversible mental trauma. 

Now that is bad but wait, there is more.

The media angle to the story focused on the fact that the boarder was gay. Ipso facto, there could be no relationship. Somehow that became the punchline of the story and the public were left thinking: How could there be a relationship if he was gay, and why did the fraud unit persist even when they knew that?

But let’s ask this question: what if the boarder was not gay?

Let’s say this boarder puts out the rubbish, helps with the bills, looks after the children and sometimes takes her to coffee (just like the gay boarder). Suppose the fraud unit snoops on text messages and social media as the privacy report shows they have been doing in countless cases and find something that has a romantic whiff. 

Perhaps he calls her “gorgeous”? That might be okay if he was gay but now it has sinister connotations. Maybe he gives her flowers? There may be a photo of them together? She will be stripped of her benefit and regardless of whether the boarder has enough money to support even himself, he must now support her and her children. She is told she now owes several thousand dollars and can be prosecuted if she doesn’t accept the assessment. 

Spot the difference? Whether the boarder is gay or not determines whether there is fraud. This means that having sex is the unchallenged defining issue. The media continues to miss the cause of the problem which is 19th century morality behind an out of control punitive culture at MSD.

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