opinion ABC Technology & Games editor Nick Ross is the only journalist in Australia so far to have gone into the appropriate level of detail in analysing the Coalition’s rival NBN policy. And the Coalition should be very afraid of this fact indeed: Because his most recent NBN opus reflects a knockout blow for its disastrously flawed fibre to the node plans.
One of the little ironies about journalism is that while many, perhaps most, journalists get into this game in an effort to help change the world, few end up truly doing so. It’s not because the opportunity isn’t there; it certainly is. No, it’s because it’s all to easy just to follow the herd. As Scott Adams, best known for creating Dilbert, wrote about journalism:
“Reporters are faced with the daily choice of painstakingly researching stories or writing whatever people tell them. Both approaches pay the same.”
Most people have never been journalists, although they may have dabbled in it through modern mediums such as blogging and Twitter. So they don’t know the endless grinding tedium of it. To most people, journalism is a highly mysterious business: Glamorous because of the close access to those in power; rewarding because of the travel and dining-related perks of the job; hard to get into and highly competitive. How, many people wonder, do all the thousands of words which appear in the newspapers and online every day get put together? How do you get into journalism, to start with? How do you gain access to the elite? How do you climb the rung to get your name out there?
But the truth is that when it comes down to it, the daily task of doing journalism is usually much more humdrum.
Journalists usually get invited to prestigious events simply by virtue of working for a publication which has always been invited to certain events, not because of who they are personally. They need no special skills to record the words of a high-profile member of society; they need merely accept the task their editor has assigned them and show up. Take a few notes, recycle the sensational bits into an article, and bob’s your uncle — you’re a journalist.
In today’s PR-saturated environment, the task is even easier: Just sit at your desk and re-write what people send you. I’m not kidding. At times I’ve literally been on the receiving end of hundreds of press releases per day. It’s less than a simple task to sift through and re-write the best two or three into humdrum articles. In fact, it’s the sort of task which any old high school graduate could do; a little industry truth is that up until the 2000’s, many of the best young Australian journalists never graduated from university at all. They went straight from school to re-hashing press releases with style. They thought they were journalists.
In this context, to become a journalist who pursues investigative stories, who pursues lines of inquiry not force-fed to you, to go out there and find the disturbing truth, becomes a constant struggle against authority and the forces of peer pressure.
Why, after all, as Scott Adams implied, would a journalist work harder to investigate a lead which may not turn out to be a story, when they won’t get paid any more for doing so? Why would they fight back against their editors to get free time to pursue such stories, when they can instead churn out re-written press releases at a rate of five per day? Why would they want to write articles that go against the grain of the coverage, and risk the censure of their peers, many of whom they will eventually end up working with, at one stage or another?
And yet there are some few journalists who will do this.
Every once in a while a journalist comes along who has the willingness to set aside their daily press release quota and chase more interesting stories, risking the displeasure of their editors and their colleagues to do so. These are the journalists who are not afraid to challenge authority; to bring up new ideas to hold against old ones, to spend days poring through thousands of dusty records or go to the wrong side of the tracks to find the truth.
They don’t do it for money (journalists don’t get paid much), but there are other reasons for doing it. The need to bolster an ego is one, but there are also nobler reasons: Pursuing the ideal of truth, informing a democracy, holding those in power to account, or even simple curiousity. If you’ve watched the film All the President’s Men, the story of how two Washington Post journalists brought down a corrupt presidency, you’ll have a feel for what I’m talking about.
Now, when it comes to coverage of the National Broadband Network project in Australia, we don’t quite have a Woodward or a Bernstein on the case. It’s not surprising. For starters there’s no real need: The NBN project and debate just doesn’t have the same level of scandal that a Watergate does. Plus, journalism in Australia has been on the decline for some time now, so it’s hard to find these kinds of figures any more.
But we do have a journalist who has refused to follow the crowd on the NBN issue and has struck out boldly on his own path. I speak, of course, of ABC Technology + Games Editor Nick Ross.
While much of the rest of Australia’s technology media has been engrossed in the incredibly fascinating issues of how much the National Broadband Network Company is paying for its coffee (16 cents a cup), whether “lasers” will make its fibre model irrelevant (they won’t) and, of course, whether its wireless towers cause radiation sickness (they don’t), Ross has been quietly getting to the bottom of more important things.
Unlike most of the rest of the media, Ross has locked onto one core fact about the NBN with all the tenacity of a British bulldog: The fact that the Coalition’s rival NBN policy may be about to seriously derail this incredibly important, decade-long, $37 billion national infrastructure project in a hugely negative way.
While the rest of the media (including yours truly, on occasion) has been examining the current NBN rollout in obsessive micro-detail, Ross has been deeply investigating whether the Coalition’s alternative fibre to the node model actually reflects good policy — and how it stacks up against the current Labor fibre to the premise model.
And what he has found is simply remarkable.
Of course, Ross has published a number of articles on the subject, but his masterwork was this piece last week, entitled The vast differences between the NBN and the Coalition’s alternative. I won’t go into all of the detail in his report (that would be impossible, given its length), but let it suffice to say that I have never, in a decade of technology journalism, read such a lengthy and detailed examination of one particular issue.
The key thing to understand here is that Ross’ NBN opus is not only long (it’s 11,000 words; a length unprecedented in Australian technology journalism); it’s impeccably well-researched.
In the ongoing National Broadband Network debate, which has been raging in Australia since at least 2005, when then-Telstra chief executive Sol Trujillo first proposed the idea, it has become common for the various players to quote from research reports, economic analyses or international deployment examples to make their case for one side or another. Ross does this too. But where another journalist might quote from one or two such reports or examples, perhaps half a dozen in the best case, Ross quotes from and links to hundreds.
Where another journalist might examine the impact various broadband technologies might have on a specific field, such as overall productivity, e-health or entertainment, Ross considers them all; exhaustively; in the same article. Where other journalists have contracted points down for brevity, Ross has expanded them into a level of detail which considers all views simultaneously.
And the conclusion Ross comes to after examining this monumental amount of data is staggering. These first few paragraphs are perhaps the best way the article can be summarised:
“The Coalition’s NBN alternative is different by almost every measure. It uses different technologies to connect the bulk of the country; it has different uses and applications; it affects Australia’s health service differently; it provides different levels of support in emergencies and natural disasters; it requires a different amount of power to operate; the cost of maintenance is different; the overall cost, the return on investment and the re-sale value are different; the management, ownership, governance, competition and monopoly factors will be different; it has a different life-span and upgradability issues; the effect on businesses (of all sizes) and GDP is different; the effects on television are different; the effect on Senior Citizens is different; the viability and potential for cost blowouts is different; the costs of buying broadband will be different; the reliability is different; the effect on property prices will be different; the timescale is different; the legacy is different. Ultimately, it has completely different aims.”
“In just about every case the Coalition’s alternative compares unfavourably to the current plans – and usually in dramatic fashion. That’s based upon the facts and the information currently available in the public domain.”
For most of the past decade, Australia has debated the benefits of fibre to the node-style broadband (where parts of Telstra’s copper network are re-used), as compared to the NBN’s current fibre to the premise style of rollout, where it will be entirely replaced with fibre. And, doubtless, that very issue will be debated right up to the September 14 Federal Election, which will decide the NBN’s fate.
Ross’s article represents nothing less than a gargantuan attempt to finish that debate once and for all, and forestall the next six months of it. Ross’s article is a final, knockout blow for the Coalition’s FTTN approach; a mammoth statement that cannot easily be refuted or ignored, if it can be at all. It’s like an octopus with a thousand tentacles; any attempt by any party to address part of it will only be met by a hundred other segments.
And here’s the rub: This stuff actually matters.
It really does matter whether the NBN continues under its current model, or is drastically altered under the Coalition’s very different vision. We’re not talking about building a house here, or even a suburb of houses. With the NBN, we’re talking about the biggest infrastructure project in Australia’s history; an initiative which will touch every Australian and shape the entire next 50-100 years of business, government and personal technology use.
If you want to radically reshape a project of that nature, you had better have a good reason. What Ross’s ridiculously detailed article shows us conclusively is that the Coalition does not. The NBN project represents good policy; and the Coalition’s vision is currently inferior.
Of course, such a collossal undertaking already has its detractors. Communications Day publisher Grahame Lynch was so incensed by Ross’s sheer audacity that he published his own massive article attempting to rebut Ross’s opus almost line by line, at the same time attempting to undercut his position at the ABC by accusing him him of unacceptable editorial standards. Classy.
It was a good try, but as I read through Lynch’s piece, I couldn’t help but feel that it came across as a little silly, really. Many of Lynch’s points don’t directly rebut Ross’s points but sidle around them glancing edgeways, and it feels like Lynch often, unfortunately, avoids the main point which Ross hammers home so hard, on so many levels; that what the Coalition is proposing is inferior to the plan we already have. This isn’t a rebuttal so much as it is a lengthy whinge.
Then there have been bloggers such as infectious diseases physician Trent Yarwood, who has repeatedly criticised Ross in the past and who did so again after the publication of Ross’s latest NBN article. Yarwood has a particular bone to pick with Ross about his claims with regard to the NBN’s likely impact on telehealth. He writes:
“I don’t give a toss about allegations of ABC bias, but your articles fail to meet what I would consider to be even a basic standard of health-care journalism. Stating your feelpinions over and over and over again, louder and louder and in longer and longer articles does not make them true. Refusing to admit there might be any other points of view make you look like your mind is very firmly closed (which I think it is), but bollocking Malcolm for the same thing while doing it yourself makes you an outrageous hypocrite.”
I don’t have the health credentials to pick a fight with Yarwood on most of his points, but it is important to address his claims about the perception that Ross’s articles are biased towards the National Broadband Network policy as it stands.
Let’s be brutally honest about this. When it comes to the ABC, Ross’s articles stand out in a huge way. They are far longer than most ABC articles. They are far more opinionated. They refer directly to commercial products in a way that the ABC usually avoids. They do not hesitate to critically examine, rather than merely report, statements which senior politicians have made, and by publishing a series of articles on a theme, Ross has indeed left himself open to claims of bias which we have no doubt have attracted the attention of some of the senior figures at Aunty.
But let’s also be very clear: This is why Ross’s audience loves his coverage, a fact which can easily be gleaned from the thousands of comments left under his highly popular articles.
Virtually alone, out of all of Australia’s technology journalists, Ross has had the courage and the conviction to seriously and in detail investigate the often dubious claims which the Coalition has made about the potential of fibre to the node technology in the NBN rollout. To do this, he has gone against the grain of the rest of the media, he has butted heads with a politician as well-regarded as Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and he has even gone against the grain of his own media outlet.
Sure, there are doubtless some minor errors in Ross’s articles. They are too lengthy, hard to read and at times he could do more to maintain the perception of journalistic objectivity. As an editor myself, I would suggest that he probably needs more eyes to look at his work before it’s published. But these are minor criticisms and don’t much detract from the titanic accomplishment that Ross delivered last week.
Consider this, for a second. Wouldn’t it be nice, in fact wouldn’t it be amazing, if the ABC was able to examine every national policy debate with the same veracity and detail which Ross has applied to the NBN issue?
With his articles, Ross has singlehandedly provided an incredibly detailed examination of the NBN policy divide which represents fantastic value for the ABC’s audience. No interview or feature segment on the ABC’s flagship 7:30 program, no matter how long, could possibly go into as much depth on the NBN as Ross has with his articles. Not even Radio National’s famed Background Briefing program, being audio in nature, could deliver the same wealth of material and references which Ross has included and linked to.
One of Ross’s self-professed aims with his NBN article last week was for it to act as a reference for the rest of the ABC community, and this in itself is enough to justify the article’s publication. In the context of the shockingly incompetent journalism we have often seen in the national NBN debate, where it is common for local TV stations in remote locations to give those literally wearing protective garb and complaining about radiation sickness the same amount of air time as professional engineers from NBN Co and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, there is a huge need for journalists in every location to be better informed about the basic facts. And often, in those remote locations, the ABC is one of only a couple of media outlets in town.
I will leave you with a prediction and a quote. Firstly, I will predict that the Coalition will not even pretend to try to address many of the issues with its NBN policy which Ross raised in his articles. Ross has too many points and they are too detailed and exhaustively referenced for Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his team to try. Instead, if asked, the Turnbull camp will merely accuse Ross, as it has in the past, of generating pro-NBN “propaganda”. It’s a nice sound-bite which doesn’t, unfortunately, stack up well against an 11,000 word article.
The quote comes from that bastion of fearless journalism, Hunter S. Thompson. I commend it to you:
“If I’d written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people – including me – would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.”
In the context of the fraught and highly politicised debate about the National Broadband Network — where even the attempts of NBN Co’s chief executive to fairly debate the alternatives are met with accusations of a “cheap stunt” — absolute truth is indeed a very hard to find. However, right now, when it comes to the Coalition’s FTTN-based NBN policy, Nick Ross’s slightly flawed, occasionally rambling but still brilliant forays into the field are as close as we are going to get. And I suspect, due among other reasons to the sharp interest commentators like Andrew Bolt are suddenly showing in Ross’s articles, that the arguments he has laid out have last week become very dangerous indeed.
Image credit: Still of Woodward and Bernstein as portrayed in the film All the President’s Men