Anti-vaccination flyers, such as those distributed by the United Australia Party, could be banned from being delivered by many of the nation’s largest mail distributors.
The industry’s self-regulatory body has decided to change its code so that signatories could not mail content containing misinformation with the potential to harm health.
Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party has been sending out mail about Covid-19 and the vaccination program since earlier this year.
The yellow and black flyers, similar to text messages sent by the UAP and advertising it has taken out in newspapers, warn of “adverse reactions” to the vaccines, based on a TGA report which documents every reaction experienced after vaccination, regardless of if there is any connection to the vaccine itself.
Joseph Haweil, the mayor of Hume in Melbourne’s north-west, one of the hardest hit areas in the city’s current Covid outbreak, told Guardian Australia that the mass distribution of UAP flyers had “not helped” amid efforts to reduce vaccine hesitancy in the area.
In June, the postal industry’s Distribution Standards Board decided that anti-vaccination flyers would be deemed “adult content” and would need to be wrapped in plastic so that children couldn’t see the content.
Flyers mailed out by the UAP have since adopted this requirement.
But the signatories to the code reported in recent weeks they had been asked to distribute more Covid-19 misinformation and wanted the code beefed up.
After reviewing flyer proofs proposed to be sent out over the past 10 days, the DSB board on Thursday ruled to update its code so that signatories “will not deliver content of inauthentic material”.
“This includes content which contains misinformation that could have potential to impact an individual’s physical or mental health, financial security, safety, is knowingly fraudulent, or is not supported by a qualified independent third-party or is widely rated as false content,” the code states.
Kellie Northwood, chief executive of the DSB, said distributors have a “strong obligation to ensure the content within the letterbox is not misleading nor have the potential to impact an individual’s physical or mental health”.
“Material pertinent to medical advice that is not qualified by an independent third-party health professional or is widely regarded as false has no place within the letterbox,” she said.
“The letterbox carries a great responsibility, arguably higher than other media channels, as it includes material above and beyond unaddressed communications from various sectors – addressed financial statements, government notices, health and educational material, emergency service contacts, community directories and more – information that is trusted with an assumed level of accuracy.”
It is unclear which companies have been accepting the UAP’s business in the past few months. In August, the Labor MP Patrick Gorman named Ive Group, the largest national distributor of mail next to Australia Post, in parliament as being behind the flyers.
“I’m calling on Ive Group – we normally know them in this place as Salmat – to stop taking Clive Palmer’s money. They’re not doing any good. They can use their freedom of speech to stop taking his money. They don’t have to distribute his misinformation.”
Ive Group referred questions about its role to the DSB. It is understood Ive has not been distributing flyers for UAP in recent months.
Guardian Australia has sought comment from the UAP.
Federal government under pressure to act
Since Craig Kelly took over as the federal leader of the UAP, unsolicited anti-vaccination text messages have been sent out to millions of Australians by the party.
The federal government has recently come under pressure to take action against the messages, which the Australian Electoral Commission and the Australian Communications and Media Authority have been unable to sanction because anti-spam laws don’t apply to political causes.
Acma and the AEC both indicated they had limited powers to act. The AEC said it had received complaints about the messages, and was responding to those complaints.
Acma said the Spam Act does not apply to messages that are not commercial in nature. Australia also has no truth in political advertising laws, meaning the regulators have no role in factchecking the ads.
But the Therapeutic Goods Administration last week issued a public statement saying its lawyers had written to Kelly alleging the party had breached its copyright, and demanding it to stop distributing “incomplete extracts” of reports of adverse events relating to Covid vaccines, which the TGA believes could be “seriously misleading”.
Kelly said that statement was “misleading” and “defamatory”.
The UAP has not responded to requests for comment, but Palmer previously told Nine News he “strongly defended” the campaign, and “all of the advertisements quoted TGA reported facts.”