opinion Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has this week levelled several extraordinary attacks on The Australian newspaper.
On Wednesday night he told Coalition senators they needed to stop believing what they read in the paper. “I repeat, you really don’t want to use as your source documents, The Australian newspaper,” Conroy said, claiming the paper was interested in ‘regime change’ in Government. And, waving around what he said was a NSW Government press release: “Go and read the source quotes, and see if you can contort it into the story written in The Australian.”
On Lateline the night after, he repeated his attack in an extraordinary diatribe aimed at the News Ltd publication. “The Australian continue to print stories that have no basis in fact,” Conroy told Lateline presenter Tony Jones.
“I think it’s fair to say that the campaigning that they’re doing against the NBN doesn’t meet any journalistic balance, it doesn’t meet any journalistic accountability, if you were to look at the actual factual substance of the story. And it’s very disappointing to see a newspaper losing its way in this way. And they have been maintaining this campaign to try and create uncertainty, to create falsehoods about the NBN and they are knowingly doing it,” he said.
Well, if you’re going to stir up a hornet’s nest, you’ve got to expect to get stung.
Today The Australian fired back at Conroy, publishing a slew of stories attacking various aspects of the NBN and rejecting the Minister’s claims about its lack of integrity.
I count no less than eight stories on the matter online right now — and you can imagine Conroy isn’t happy about most of them. A brief list:
- Tall claims, few facts in $43bn broadband gamble (by Coalition MP Paul Fletcher)
- Just 1 in 10 opt to take up the National Broadband Network (by senior journalists Matthew Denholm and Annabel Hepworth)
- NBN wiring could cost users up to $400 a room (by AustralianIT editor Stuart Kennedy)
- Hidden back-up charge for users in fast broadband service (by Fran Foo)
- Shaky rollout on the NBN front line (by Tasmanian journalist Matthw Denholm)
- Conroy spinning into old habits with rant (by Matthew Franklin, chief political correspondent)
- Conroy having ‘hissy fit’ over The Australians’ NBN coverage: Chris Mitchell (by Geoff Elliott)
- Shield protects NBN from competition (by economist Henry Ergas)
Now there is no doubt that some of Conroy’s complaints against the Australian are legitimate. For example, my opinion is that much of what The Australian is publishing about the cost of rewiring homes to deal with the NBN is an exaggeration, given that many homes are already wired for broadband, and that this process is understood well.
For the cheap among us, re-wiring your house for the NBN will be a matter of running a blue cat5 cable down the hall — like many people already have — and hooking up wireless. For those with deeper pockets, it might require running cables through the wall — but the increasing ubiquity of broadband will make that necessary anyway — it’s hardly the NBN’s fault.
And based on my own experience in these matters — as a former systems administrator who’s played with plenty of blue cables — I hardly think it’s going to cost a tradesperson $400 per room to do so.
Then, too, The Australian’s focus on how basic fixed telephone services will be provided to homes under the NBN is simply ridiculous. Fixed line telephones are increasingly becoming an anachronism in Australia as people switch to mobiles and internet telephony. The limitations of these replacement technologies are well understood.
But the problem for Conroy, particularly today, is that much of The Australian’s reporting on the NBN is spot on.
As the newspaper wrote today, take-up of the NBN in Tasmania has been poor. This reflects a failure by the Government to sell to rural communities the benefits of a technology that is of far more interest to those in city areas. The biggest hullabaloo in rural areas when it comes to telecommunications over recent years has been the closure of Telstra’s CDMA network, not the lack of fast broadband.
There are precious few people in Midway Point in Tasmania itching to set up next-generation IT businesses from their homes as soon as they get NBN connections. That’s not why they live in Midway Point to start with.
And, as The Australian also pointed out today, there are many details to be worked out in how the NBN will be connected to people’s homes. There is a risk that NBN Co contractors will screw up the fibre installation in people’s houses — and until the process is more standardised, there will be more complaints.
But beyond these minor details — which have, admittedly, been blown up a bit out of proportion by The Australian, there is a wider problem with the NBN.
Labor never consulted sufficiently with the extremely wide range of stakeholders that have an interest in the extremely large infrastructure project that the NBN represents. The chaos that is currently engulfing its discussions with state governments about whether a national, uniform ‘opt-out’ scheme for the NBN should be implemented is representative of this fact.
The lack of a comprehensive cost/benefit analysis is another example. The truth is — as Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been at pains to point out — that it is completely up in the air as to whether a cost/benefit analysis would show the NBN was worth it or not. So when you have some of the most senior businesspeople in the country calling for such a document to be put together, why does the Government keep on rejecting the idea?
It’s not just The Australian discussing that particular issue — The Australian Financial Review last week called for the Government to conduct a cost/benefit analysis into the NBN as well. Bipartisan support from Fairfax and News Ltd? Sounds like that one might, just might, be an issue.
Finally, there is Labor’s increasing focus on making the NBN work, no matter what — best seen in the inappropriate and uncompetitive pricing rules it is proposing to set on those who want to build their own telecommunications infrastructure. As economist Henry Ergas pointed out this week, Labor is planning to shut down competitive infrastructure and enforce pricing controls to make the NBN work.
“This is unprecedented in Australian economic history,” he wrote — and I agree. Shutting down the cable networks of Telstra and Optus — which constitute competitive infrastructure — makes absolutely no sense in a first-world capitalist country.
So is The Australian on a rampage? Indisputably. But there is a concrete reason behind the newspaper’s single-minded focus on the NBN right now.
Like any good journalist, The Australian’s editors smell blood on the NBN issue. The NBN may be the right technology for the nation’s telecommunications future — in fact, I have no doubt that it is — but the NBN project as a whole is being implemented in a heavy-handed and risky way that is making many powerful people uneasy. Just as with Labor’s internet filter project, Conroy is trying to ram the NBN through without due process.
Conroy’s arrogant attitude towards criticism of his prize project will need to change drastically — and soon — if he truly wants to drive the project forward and to success. Otherwise, he may find it’s not just The Australian on his back about the issue — but much of the rest of the media as well.