news The Australian this morning published several articles accusing a senior ABC journalist of failing to uphold the broadcaster’s editorial standards in coverage of the National Broadband Network, despite the fact that the News Ltd newspaper and its commentators have themselves faced the same criticism from the print media watchdog and others in the past.
The newspaper this morning published two articles severely criticising ABC Technology + Games Editor Nick Ross, who has over the past few months published a string of analytical articles on the ABC Technology + Games site exploring the differences (technical, commercial, economical and financial) between the Federal Government’s current NBN policy and the Coalition’s alternative. Initially one of the articles incorrectly described Ross as a “blogger”: The article was updated with the correct “journalist” term.
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.
In the second article, telecommunications analyst Kevin Morgan published an opinionated article claiming that Ross used the ABC’s website to “spruik” the NBN project, and that Ross’s articles did not reflect an objective analysis of the competing NBN policies, but instead were based on “misrepresentation and glaring factual errors”.
It’s not the first time that Ross has been accused of pro-NBN sentiment. In July 2012, Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull accused the journalist of creating “relentless propaganda” to support the NBN, as Ross challenged Turnbull to back up a number of controversial public statements he had made about the NBN.
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.
The articles by the newspaper come despite the fact that The Australian and other News Ltd newspapers have been cautioned in the past by the Australian Press Council, the industry self-regulator, for incorrect articles about the NBN. In March 2012, for example another News Ltd publication, The Australian, published a correction to a story after it inaccurately alleged that a school in South Australia would have to pay $200,000 to connect to the NBN; in fact, the school will receive NBN access as part of the normal rollout.
Several months before that, In December 2011, the Australian Press Council expressed concern about the Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the Federal Government’s National Broadband Network project, backing a local critic’s complaint that three articles in a short period of time had contained “inaccurate or misleading assertions” about the NBN.
In October 2010, shortly after The Australian published a string of sharply negative articles about the NBN during that year’s Federal Election, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy severely criticised The Australian newspaper in a Senate Estimates hearing for what he said was the newspaper’s distortion of the facts around the costs involved in re-wiring homes for the NBN.
“You made a claim … to be fair, you based it on The Australian, again,” Conroy told one Liberal Senator on the night. “You’ve got to stop believing what you read in The Australian.” “I repeat, you really don’t want to use as your source documents, The Australian newspaper,” Conroy later added. 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.”
NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley also took The Australian to task on the occasion. Some sections of Australia’s press simply weren’t interested in “hearing reality” on the lack of real costs involved in re-wiring homes for the NBN, Quigley said, adding there was a lot of “misinformation” on that and other issues.
Conroy also spoke out in August 2012 against the media in general for what he said at the time was its action in constantly repeating misconceptions about Labor’s National Broadband Network project, additionally singling out the Financial Review newspaper for particular ridicule and recommending that those interested in accuracy read broadband forum Whirlpool.
It is also unusual for telecommunications analyst Kevin Morgan to accuse the ABC’s Nick Ross of issues with his objectivity, given Morgan’s own background in the telecommunications field and his established position on the NBN. Morgan is widely regarded in the telecommunications industry as being one of the leading critics of the Government’s NBN project, and has made a number of highly disputed claims regarding the initiative.
For example, in a radio segment with shockjock Alan Jones in November 2012 (Jones is also regarded as a critic of the NBN), Morgan claimed that the the rollout of the NBN’s fibre network would put lives at risk, due to the fact that a number of services such as medical alarms, traffic lights and burglar alarms depended on Telstra’s current copper network.
Morgan claimed that NBN Co had not done enough in the area of battery backup support for the NBN’s optic fibre, to ensure that such services would remain available in the event of power failures. “People’s lives are going to be put at risk by this policy,” he claimed.
Perhaps the most unorthodox part of Jones’ interview with Morgan was the telecommunications consultant’s comparison of the NBN project to the Tanganyika Groundnut Scheme promulgated by the British Labour Government in the 1940’s in East Africa. The project was intended to develop the region’s agriculture potential but failed. “If you go out into the bush in Southern Africa, now Tanzania, you’ll find all these rusting tractors, all this junk from this project,” Morgan told Jones. And then, with reference to the NBN: “You’re going to have fibre hanging off power poles, incomplete sections of this network. The Labor Government, if they’re returned, will have to revisit this, have to say this is nonsense.”
In another article published in August 2012, Morgan argued that the NBN project had suffered a “massive failure” to reach any of its goals, discounting issues with the greenfields portion of the NBN rollout and the delayed contract with Telstra which is critical to the NBN as “a furphy”. In another article in October 2011, Morgan argued that NBN Co chief Mike Quigley needs to explain “what value is being delivered by the network”, why the NBN Co “gravy train” of costs is exploding, and why there is “pork-barrelling” in the NBN rollout in Tasmania.
As early as May 2010 — a year after NBN Co was first established — Morgan published an article in industry newsletter Communications Day severely criticising the NBN implementation study released at that point by the Federal Government. And in October 2012, Morgan described NBN Co’s commercial viability as a “joke”, despite NBN Co’s most recent corporate plan being consistent — after several years of NBN construction and operation — with the corporate plan the company released in 2010.
I think I speak very factually here when I say that The Australian newspaper is widely regarded in Australia’s technology sector as being one of the leading critics of the NBN. Despite the project’s laudable benefits to basic broadband service delivery in Australia, as well as to the nation’s productivity and in industries such as health, education and information technology, the newspaper has very rarely praised the NBN, with the overwhelming majority of its articles being bitterly opposed to the network on every measure. The newspaper event went so far as to run a string of front-page articles against the NBN during the 2010 Federal Election, in which the NBN was a key issue.
Similarly, telecommunications analyst Kevin Morgan has emerged as one of the leading critics of the NBN over the past few years. I have never read an article by Morgan praising the network; on the other hand, I have read many articles by the commentator damning the project for what Morgan sees as its financial irresponsibility and other issues. And usually those articles have been published by The Australian.
In this context, it is highly hypocritical for The Australian and Morgan personally to accuse senior ABC journalist Nick Ross of breaching ABC editorial guidelines when it comes to his coverage of the NBN. It’s worse than the pot calling the kettle black; it’s irony of the highest degree.
Like others, I will admit that Ross’s articles haven’t been perfect — he’s made small errors here and there, and I think they could have been better edited. However, they still represent an incredible resource to readers of the ABC, and it is easily apparent at this point that Ross is the only journalist in Australia to have investigated the various NBN policies in sufficient depth, on a range of measures.
Personally, I was surprised and a little confused to read The Australian’s articles this morning. They came across as shrill, indignant and a little childish in nature; almost as though its writers had had to resort to playground insults instead of rational argument to get their point across. I hope to see a more adult level of NBN debate from the newspaper in future.
Image credit: NBN Co