news Communications Minister Stephen Conroy has harshly criticised both The Australian newspaper and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for what he said were “outrageous” attempts to vilify and discipline senior ABC journalist Nick Ross for merely doing his job in comparing the Coalition and Government NBN policies.
This morning The Australian newspaper published several articles accusing Ross, Editor of the ABC’s Technology + Games sub-site (follow his Twitter account here), of failing to meet the ABC’s editorial standards. Ross has published a number of articles over the past six months which have been critical of the Coalition’s fibre to the node-based alternative broadband policy, and Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull last year accused Ross of using the ABC’s platform to distribute pro-NBN “propaganda”.
However, Ross’s articles have been very positively received by Australia’s technology sector, which retains significant concerns about the viability of the Coalition’s NBN policy. An article of significant length published by Ross several weeks ago received 438 comments, with the majority praising Ross’s work for its analysis and detail, in a media environment in which few journalists have challenged disputed claims the Coalition has made regarding the NBN.
In addition, other media outlets have started to use Ross’s work as a basis for investigating the differences between the two policies. This week, for example, Channel 10’s The Project television show used Ross’s work extensively in sharply questioning Turnbull on his rival NBN policy.
In the first article, The Australian quoted an ABC spokesperson, who said that Ross had been reminded of the need to ensure that his work in the area was in keeping with ABC policies. The newspaper stated that Ross had been “disciplined” over concerns that his work had failed to meet the ABC’s “standards of objective journalism”. However, Ross subsequently published a statement on his Twitter account noting that he hadn’t, in fact, been formally disciplined by the ABC.
Conroy made his view on the situation clear in a strongly worded interview with the ABC’s Melbourne host Jon Faine this morning. A full transcript of the interview has been published by independent site Australians For Honest Politics.
“… there now seems to be a policy of trying to intimidate ABC personnel,” Conroy told Faine, although Faine had not asked about the issue. “Malcolm Turnbull is constantly attacking and trying to bully some of your journalists.”
“And today I read in The Australian, and I know you shouldn’t always believe everything you read in The Australian, but a very disturbing thing where another journalist on the ABC staff has been internally disciplined because they’re not prepared to just accept every policy pronouncement, or claim that’s made publicly.”
“Now this cannot go on. These internal procedures of the ABC have to be more open and more transparent. Journalists cannot work on a basis that they’re going to be bullied and intimidated, and have complaints lodged against them in a process that is not transparent and open.”
Conroy noted that he didn’t agree with all of Ross’s findings in his articles, but he stated that comparing policies was the rightful job of journalists, and that Ross in particular had gone to great lengths to examine all of the facts regarding the NBN policy environment. “And for this he’s attacked by The Australian, he’s vilified in The Australian today, and a campaign, through a process that is non-transparent, doesn’t give people inside the ABC a fair go,” said Conroy.
Faine asked Conroy why he didn’t do something about the situation, given that as Communications Minister he had oversight of the ABC. Conroy replied: “Well I don’t run the ABC, it’s got a board, it’s got an independent charter, and it’s got a managing director. But I think it’s time to call out, where you’ve got journalists inside the ABC are being disciplined in a process that does not – does not remotely give fair justice to the journalists involved. This is just an outrageous process.”
The news represents the second time in as many months that the ABC has been accused of bias and has discliplined one of its journalists, with Faine himself having been found to have breached the ABC’s policies after an interview regarding allegations of involvement by Prime Minister Julia Gillard in a union slush fund in the early 1990’s.
To a certain extent you have to feel a little sorry for ABC Technology + Games editor Nick Ross, following this interview which Senator Conroy gave this morning. I am sure that the ABC really does not want its journalists becoming ‘part of the story’, as has happened with Ross; it would prefer that coverage focused on the issues involved, rather than the journalists themselves.
However, Conroy has correctly raised the current level of persecution directed at Nick Ross as being extreme, and I have no doubt that senior editors within the ABC will pay a lot of attention. By commenting directly on the persecution directed at Ross, Conroy has in effect placed a cloak of protection around the journalist. If the ABC takes any further action towards Ross on this issue, and if The Australian continues its articles attacking him personally, they know that Conroy will not fail to notice such events.
This is not an insignificant thing Conroy has done — and there is no doubt in my mind that he hasn’t done it just because Ross has been broadly positive about the NBN and negative towards the Coalition’s rival policy. It’s part of Conroy’s job, after all, to defend, protect and develop the ABC, as its overseeing minister.
At the core of this issue is a key idea about journalism which are influencing the debate about Ross’s coverage greatly. The reason why the ABC is likely to have felt a little uncomfortable about Ross’s articles is that when you read them, they often don’t come across as ‘balanced’, in the journalistic sense. They come across as slanted towards the Government’s current FTTP-based NBN policy and against the Coalition’s FTTN-based policy.
However, in writing these articles Ross has correctly, and insightfully, tapped into a current trend within journalism circles away from the ideal of ‘balance’ and ‘objectivity’, and towards the trend of attempting to find the real truth of a matter. In short, moving away from “he said, she said” journalism and towards getting to the actual real-world truth of a situation.
As Ross has correctly identified, the Coalition’s NBN policy just does not stack up against Labor’s NBN policy in the real world on a range of measures, and there are significant doubts as to whether it’s viable at all (such as the fact that FTTN rollouts globally have only ever been deployed by incumbent telcos on their own networks — not by separate companies such as NBN Co).
In this context, as I’ve found with my own journalism on Delimiter, there really is no way to provide journalistic ‘balance’ in this debate in the traditional sense. Just as in the climate change debate globally, there is no way to give each side an equal voice, because the sides are intrinsically not equal.
Sure, he’s made some small errors in his articles, but in general, Ross’s unwillingness to compromise his journalistic ideals, and his steadfast refusal to bow before the public criticism of a high-profile politician such as Malcolm Turnbull, demonstrate the best of investigative and analytical journalism; speaking truth to power in the most literal sense. And power has reacted: Turnbull and other conservative elements such as The Australian and industry newsletter Communications Day have had their view of the NBN significantly threatened in public by Ross’s articles, and are pushing back strongly against his coverage.
This is the sort of situation that the ABC doesn’t like to find itself in; it likes to stand outside politics. But for me personally, I keep on coming back to the following paragraphs I wrote about this situation in another article 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.
In short, Ross shouldn’t have to rely on political players like Conroy to garner support for his articles. It is the ABC itself which should be staunchly supporting Ross’s integrity in this debate, and it is the ABC which should be using his ideals as a template to encourage its other journalists to seek the detailed, nitty gritty truth in the debates it hosts, rather than merely provide a false sense of ‘balance’ to the debate.
Some ABC journalists do do this. I’m thinking of 7:30 presenter Leigh Sales and journalists Chris Uhlmann and Heather Hewitt, Faine himself in Melbourne, PM presenter Mark Colvin and Breakfast presenter Fran Kelly. It’s quite common for such journalists to challenge power and debate policy in the way Ross has, although never quite in the length and detail which Ross has brought to the NBN debate (because of the differing mediums they work in). However, it’s clear that the ABC isn’t doing this enough in general across its operations, and that Ross’s work has lessons for the ABC in general.
One of the really good examples of this kind of journalism was Leigh Sales’ August 2012 interview with Tony Abbott, in which Sales pushed the Opposition Leader hard on the issues of the mining and carbon taxes. I think many viewers will agree it represented a watershed moment for the ABC in terms of its journalists seeking the truth in a debate, rather than ‘balance’. Sales ended up winning a Walkley award for that courageous interview, among others. One can only hope that Ross will eventually receive the same kind of recognition.