news Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has faced a number of questions from the media over the past 24 hours as to whether his actions towards ABC journalist Nick Ross and others has constituted ‘bullying’ journalists with respect to the contentious National Broadband Network issue in his portfolio.
On Monday night, the ABC’s Media Watch program went into detail to examine the coverage of ABC Technology + Games Editor Nick Ross with respect to the NBN. The program broadly supported Ross’s approach of deeply analysing the different NBN policies espoused by the Government and the Coalition, praising the grounding of Ross’s articles in research and his attempt to get to the truth of the debate, rather than merely reporting each sides’ claims.
However, the program also found that Ross had stepped over the line a little into ‘advocacy’ for Labor’s vision for the NBN. It’s an issue which Turnbull has raised repeatedly with respect to the media over the past year. In November 2012, for example, Turnbull accused Australia’s media of having a “cheerleader” approach to the NBN and of being parochial; and in another example in August Turnbull claimed “specialist technology journalists were fanning a pro-NBN zealotry among tech-savvy citizens”.
In July Turnbull accused Ross personally of creating “relentless propaganda” to support Labor’s flagship National Broadband Network project, in a stance which the Shadow Communications Minister described as “embarrassing”.
Despite the criticism, 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.
Last Friday, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy accused Turnbull of “constantly attacking and trying to bully” some of the ABC’s journalists on the issue.
In a doorstop interview yesterday associated with the Government’s response to media reform, Turnbull was asked by an ABC journalist whether he could see a role for the public media advocate which Conroy has suggested creating to mediate in the Liberal MP’s dispute with Ross over the NBN. “Have you been bullying journalists?” was the next question. And then: “What did you think of Media Watch last night?”
In response, Turnbull said he had watched the Media Watch episode. He added: “Look I think – journalists can only be bullied if they want to be bullied. I’m not in the business of bullying. I used to be a journalist. Journalists are very contra-suggestible. I think if you try to bully journalists, invariably it’s not going to be successful. So I always express my view and frankly thanks to the Internet, social media, the web, my blog, I’m in a position where I’m able to get my views out there. I don’t have to grovel to a producer or an editor to get my stuff into the mainstream media. And that’s one of the ways in which the Internet has revolutionised communications, including political communications.”
And then later on in the same interview, after being persuaded to answer one last question, he joked: “How could I bully journalists? I’m putty in your hands.”
In a separate interview this week on ABC Radio Melbourne, the issue was raised again by host Jon Faine. “Well, you’ve made a complaint about an ABC editor’s coverage of Senator Conroy’s plan and the ABC upheld your complaint and Senator Conroy says that’s wrong,” said Faine.
In response, Turnbull highlighted Media Watch’s comments about Ross’s advocacy. “… clearly he is an advocate for a particular policy as opposed to being an analyst and I think that’s a fair comment. But Ross is an unusual fellow in some respects, I mean you saw his performance at that press conference in Queensland where I think he interrupted me 16 times and was pretty rude. It sort of shocked everyone there,” Turnbull said.
“And then, of course, he came on your show last week and said I’d accused him of being corrupt. I’ve never accused him of being corrupt. As indeed Jonathan Holmes acknowledged. So, he’s pretty wild in what he says. I think if you’re writing a blog for the ABC I think it’s important to be balanced and measured, that doesn’t mean you can’t have opinions, but I think –”
Faine then asked Turnbull whether it was legitimate for ABC journalists to have opinions.
“I think it’s a question of how they’re expressed and whether they’re fairly acknowledging the position of the other side,” said Turnbull. “I’ll say one thing – this will annoy some people in the tech journalism world – but I’ll just make this comment. You and I are of an age when journalists doing their work used to pick up the telephone and actually call people and talk to them. Of course you do that for a living, you have to in radio.”
“Quite a lot of these tech journos, so called, live in sort of self-referencing bubble where all of their “research” is basically looking at stuff online and they’re very reluctant to actually speak to anybody and one of my criticisms of ABC’s coverage of the NBN has been that they have not gone to the effort, and I cannot understand why they haven’t, of actually interviewing people at, for example, British Telecom in London and ABC’s got a big office in London. BT is taking the sort of hybrid technology agnostic approach to building broadband that we’re proposing and they’re doing it and yet that doesn’t get — you know, it’s as though the debate here is in this a sort of bubble as if Australia wasn’t part of the world.”
Do I think Turnbull is bullying journalists, and do I think he is bullying Nick Ross? No. Personally I have always found Turnbull’s office very easy and pleasant to deal with. We’ve had our odd spats, but in general I would say that Turnbull and his team work more closely with and understand the media better than do most other politicians and their staff. What’s been going on is more or less the normal cut and thrust of politics and the media.
We need only remind ourselves of the way which Conroy’s own office went into clampdown mode during the height of Labor’s Internet filter controversy, or how Labor’s series of Attorney-Generals have refused to answer questions about data retention or Internet piracy policies, to see how it’s actually usually been Labor over the past few years which has had an acrimonious relationship with the press. (Of course, things have broadly changed for the better with respect to Conroy’s office now that the filter policy is dead. Conroy really understands the tech media now and he and his office do a very good job of dealing with us.)
However, I do think what Turnbull is doing is bullying the public.
What Nick Ross’s work does a great job of highlighting is that Turnbull and the Coalition have simply not presented enough evidence to make their case that the NBN project as a whole is off the rails and needs to be substantially re-focused around fibre to the node. There is, on the contrary, a great deal of evidence that the Australian public overwhelmingly supports the NBN and that it is currently broadly on track, and certainly within the broad boundaries for this kind of infrastructure project.
Turnbull is an intelligent, thoughtful politician who usually relies on his research skills and charisma to work on issues. And in the past he’s been highly successful using this approach. However, in the case of the NBN, what’s happening is that the Member for Wentworth is broadly finding himself on the wrong side. Turnbull is usually an agent for positive progress, intelligent industry and rational thinking. But the facts of the matter are that Labor appears to have gotten its NBN policy more or less right — it’s popular, it will deliver substantial broadband service delivery benefits using the best technology, and it is on track.
In this context, Turnbull has very little room to criticise the NBN; and so he’s increasingly becoming a little shrill in his attempts to find grounds to do so; he’s criticising journalists where he would normally be charming them to be on his side; he’s resorting to stock phrases to try and get his point across, and he’s overall refusing to back down from what is just not a great Coalition policy.
In short, with the Coalition’s rival NBN policy, Turnbull is trying to push shit uphill, to use a colloquial term; to foist something on the public which it doesn’t really want.
If I were Turnbull and the Coalition, I would accept that the NBN project is going to go ahead and that it is the will of the Australian people that it do so. I would pledge to provide a safe pair of hands for the project. However, I would also promise to keep it on the straight and narrow. Fiscal accountability, great project management, retaining NBN Co’s executive team over long periods of time; these are the sorts of things I would promise the electorate. In short, still committing to the NBN, but keeping it on a tighter rein than Labor. In my opinion, this is the kind of thing the Australian public wants to hear from the Coalition in the broadband portfolio at the moment.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull