Thursday, March 24, 2011

Of country journalism and amoral insurers

(photo credit: Maranoa Regional Council)

I have a story in tomorrow’s paper that made me angry, angry that is, I had to write it at all.

This time last year, Roma and western Queensland had a major flood. There was substantial damage to homes and livelihoods, though fortunately no died as a direct result. Nevertheless in many ways the floods wreaked havoc in the same way as they would later do in Eastern Queensland in Dec 2010 and Jan 2011. There was the initial heartbreak of waters getting into houses and destroying prize possessions and priceless memories. Then later, many residents found they had been dealt a double blow.

Insurance companies sent out pennypinching assessors with unwritten orders not to pay out and found every last measly trick in the book to deny insurance claims. In South West Queensland hundreds of residents had their claims refused after the March 2010 event; in South East Queensland at the turn of the year, thousands were forced into the same leaky boat. Rapacious insurers such as NRMA, NAB (and underwriters Allianz) and ANZ (underwritten by QBE) paid hydrologists to make findings that suited the companies. “Sunny Day Flooding” they called it, which wasn’t covered according to the small print, and not stormwater damage which was. This was despite independent hydrology reports saying exactly the opposite.

When Roma, St George and Bollon residents found out their insurers had abandoned them to their fate, they were left with two choices: involve the Financial Ombudsman Service or join a class action to fight the companies. There were a few small and remote voices (the Western Star was one) who complained long and bitterly about the cynical customer management of the insurers but they were of no concern to multi-national companies with shareholders to look after.

The east Queensland flood event was a quantum degree higher in intensity and effect. When the companies began to refuse claimants, national media took notice as did the PR departments of the major companies. One of the biggest is the National Australia Bank. They (and Allianz) refused to pay out based on their WorleyParsons hydrologist's report. It was Roma all over again with one crucial difference. Uncomfortable national media headlines in a national emergency was not a good look, so NAB pledged $4 billion in lending support and a $15m assistance fund for underinsured clients “to provide ex-gratia payments to assist NAB Home Insurance customers who are not covered for the losses they have suffered in the recent floods.”

When customers who suffered in the 2010 Roma flood heard about this fund, they reasonably rang the number provided. They were told the fund was not for them. “Your event happened too long ago”, they were told bluntly and refused help. The event happened on 2 March 2010, slightly over a year ago, but as one victim who lost all their furniture to the floods told me poignantly, “we remember every detail like it happened yesterday.”

I contacted the National Bank’s media people and lobbed three questions at them:
1) Is the Courier-Mail “Sunny Day Flooding” report accurate and has the NAB put aside a large amount of money to cover Brisbane and Toowoomba flood victims who may be under insured?
2) If so, are there any plans to extend these payments to flood victims of the Western Qld floods of March 2010?
3) If there are no such plans, how does the bank justify helping out those in urban areas while not extending the same courtesy to its rural customers who suffered just as much in a similar fashion, but at a different time and with less national media exposure?

The response I got on Monday was a masterpiece of PR puffery that told me nothing but took its time about getting there.
“NAB can confirm, that NAB branded insurance does not provide cover for floods. However, earlier this year, due to the size and impact of the floods which affected East Australia, NAB, like many other Australian businesses and individuals, provided additional support measures to assist impacted customers. NAB always provides a range of hardship and other support measures to customers who are impacted by natural disasters.”

The response made no attempt to answer my questions directly but more or less confirmed question 1 was true. Questions 2 and 3 weren't addressed. Instead I got managerial language and a brush off.

Undeterred, I responded again on Tuesday: "You didn’t address my questions 2 and 3 so I will take this to mean that NAB has no intention of helping out its rural customers who pay just as much insurance as their city counterparts. I will also take it to mean NAB is unable to justify why they won’t help out Roma customers other than the fact that they were unlucky enough to be impacted by floods which did not have as much 'size and impact' as the East Australia flood".

This time I got no response. So I let them have it with both barrels in a story I wrote for tomorrow’s front page. The first sentence read “National Australia Bank’s motto is 'more give and take less' but try telling that to fuming Roma customers who the bank has abandoned a second time in 12 months.” You’ll have to buy the paper to read the rest of the story. However, wanting to give NAB a chance to respond, I sent them a full copy of the article several hours before my deadline and told them to pass it on to their management. I don’t know if they did or did not but they never responded to me.

After all, why should they? This is a company that made cash profits of $4.58 billion last year. What was I but the representative of some two-bit hick media outfit out in Woop Woop. There was no need to set up a fund for ex-gratia payments for the people I represent.

But regional newspapers play a vital role in small towns. As Rod Kirkpatrick points out, since the 19th century a district was lacking an essential weapon in its armoury if it wasn't represented by a journal of its own. They became advocates and agitators for regional rights and vehicles for political causes. They achieved cohesion and “countrymindedness” for their constituents.

Today, many rural papers have been run down by the pressures of running a newsprint business. But the need for cohesion and countrymindedness (if not bloodymindedness) is still as strong as ever. If I as a country journalist, don’t get mad when local citizens are duped by sanctimonious commercial enterprises that are supposed to serve them but instead act like moral pygmies, then who will?


Jack P said...

Bloody good work. This is journalism at it's finest. I'm north of Roma and have been through two floods in the past year. So I know of the difficulty people have had with their insurers. Many have not bothered at all, knowing that it was a lost cause.

Friendless said...

So I hope the NAB in Roma doesn't have any customers any more. People would be irresponsible to bank with a company that abandons their town like that.

Anonymous said...

I hope you know about this:

You've made only the first step, now make them pay.
Good luck!