news Telecommunications analyst Paul Budde has sharply criticised Australia’s media for not levelling the same “malice” and “vicious media attacks” at the Coalition’s National Broadband Network policy as it has with Labor’s NBN vision, despite the fact that the two policies share a great deal of similarity.
In a new post published on his site this morning, Budde noted that the Coalition had historically taken a strongly antagonistic approach to Labor’s NBN project, in what the analyst described as a “kill the NBN at all cost” approach that was supported by “a great deal of malice by some of the media”. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott famously ordered Malcolm Turnbull to “demolish” the NBN upon appointing the MP Shadow Communications Minister in September 2010.
However, Budde noted, the Coalition’s new rival NBN policy was very similar to Labor’s own. Under both policies, the most remote communities will be served by NBN Co’s satellite access, regional communities will be served by fixed wireless infrastructure, and fibre will be deployed throughout Australia’s larger population areas. The main difference between the two policies is that the Coalition is proposing, at least in the medium term, to serve most of Australia with fibre to the node rather than fibre to the home technology; although the Coalition’s policy document also leaves open the possibility of a long-term upgrade to fibre to the premises, similar to Labor’s vision.
“What amazes me is that, with the Coalition now supporting the NBN, the attacks on the NBN by the abovementioned press have slowed down considerably,” wrote Budde. “We now have an NBN plan from the Coalition that has nothing to do with ‘kill at all cost’ – it is, in fact, very much in line with the government plan. So those vicious media attacks apparently had little or nothing to do with the positives or negatives of the NBN. They were made from a purely political perspective.”
If those journalists are critical of the NBN for any other reason they should attack the Opposition’s version of the NBN as vigorously as they condemned the current government’s version … I haven’t come across any criticism by these media of the Coalition’s current NBN plan, despite the fact that it looks very similar to the one generated by the current government.”
Communications Minister Stephen Conroy — the minister responsible for the NBN project — has repeatedly criticised newspapers such as the Financial Review and The Australian over the past several years for what he has claimed to be inaccuracies in the newspapers’ reporting of the NBN project. In some instances, the criticism appears to have been bourne out.
For example, in a doorstop press conference this year, the Senator strongly attacked the AFR, referring to an article the newspaper had written regarding delays in NBN Co’s fibre rollout caused by contractor Syntheo. “We are on track to meet the corporate plan, no matter how much heavy breathing you or the Financial Review wants to do,” Conroy told an AFR reporter at the event.
In late June last year, in another example, the newspaper published an article stating that there was “a real risk” that the NBN’s fibre infrastructure might be overtaken by technical breakthroughs in areas such as “wireless technology”. “One such breakthrough on the technological horizon is Data In Data Out wireless technology, which promises wireless speeds up to 1000 times faster than those offered today,” the newspaper claimed. However, the notion that wireless could serve as a replacement for fibre or other fixed network technologies is heavily disputed by the global technology community and is a view outside current mainstream thinking on the issue.
The AFR also reported that take-up of the NBN in the areas where it is available so far has been “minuscule”. Unfortunately, this claim is also heavily disputed. In general, Australia-wide, NBN take-up rates have been strong. In fact, in communities such as Willunga in South Australia and Kiama in New South Wales, the take-up rate in the short time the NBN has been active in those areas has been north of 30 percent. This rate is expected to accelerate as Telstra’s competing copper cable is shut down in areas where the NBN has been rolled out, forcing Australians to migrate onto the NBN fibre.
The publication of that article came a day after the AFR published another article on the NBN stating that two key NBN contractors weren’t bidding for the next round of NBN construction deals due to rollout delays in the network. However, after the publication of the article, NBN Co and the contractors publicly denied the AFR’s allegations as “patently untrue”.
Over the past several years, there have been a number of misleading articles published by various other newspapers about the NBN. 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. Similarly, in March last year, 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.
However, accusations of media bias on the NBN issue have also been leveled from the Opposition. In November last year, for instance, Turnbull heavily criticised Australia’s specialist technology media for what he described as its “cheerleader” approach to the Government’s National Broadband Network, saying the nation was “let down by the so-called technology media” as it did not examine local events closely enough with reference to the global telecommunications sector.
Turnbull’s comments represented only the most recent time that the former Liberal Leader has heavily criticised Australia’s technology media with respect to its NBN commentary. In August, for example, Turnbull said that “specialist technology journalists” were fanning a pro-NBN zealotry amongst tech-savvy citizens – those who wanted “the ultimate broadband”, regardless of more feasible alternatives.
So who’s right here? Has the media been pro-NBN, or anti-NBN? Which way does the bias slant? To be honest, there’s some truth coming from all sides, but also some obfuscation. Well, at least in my opinion. I am, after all, a member of the media; so I am one of the journalists being commented on by both sides ;)
In my opinion, the mainstream media in the form of the daily national newspapers (the AFR and the Australian) have been blatantly anti-NBN for some time now. You need only look at the current asbestos scandal to see this. The asbestos issue has little to do with the NBN or NBN Co per se — it’s a historical issue relating to Telstra that has come to the fore again because of the NBN. We’ve only seen a handful of asbestos incidents over the past several years relating to Telstra’s handling of the issue, and Telstra does have a management plan in place for the material. The asbestos issue is very important, but it’s been going on for decades, and it’s not the grand national scandal that the mainstream media would like us to believe, a fact you would not be able to glean from the dozens of articles that the newspapers are printing on the issue at the moment.
At times, it has seemed like the newspapers would go to any length to criticise the NBN; any tiny angle, any issue at all. And Budde’s completely right — any issue which applies to the Government’s NBN policy will likely apply to the Coalition’s rival plans. The policies are highly similar in many respects, despite all the debate. But we haven’t seen the same level of scrutiny attached to the Coalition’s plans as we have Labor’s. Perhaps that will happen if the Coalition takes power in September.
However, it’s also true that some sections of Australia’s specialist technology media has a pro-Labor NBN bias. That’s because the technology media is generally inclined to prefer the best technology available in any given circumstance; that is, after all, part of our job — to rate technologies and tell readers which one is the best. It’s worth noting that the NBN has been delayed significantly, and it has been the mainstream media (the newspapers) which broke the truth about the delays, not the specialist technology media, which tends sometimes to exist in a bit of a utopian vision when it comes to technology.
You can see further illustration of this trend in the way that much of the technology press still tends to be highly critical of the Coalition’s NBN policy, despite the fact that it shares most of its aspects with Labor’s policy. The “FTTN versus FTTP” debate is a continual one in the technology media and will not go away any time soon. You can also see this trend demonstrated in the extreme reaction which many in the technology sector displayed when I pointed out, as Budde has, that the Coalition’s NBN policy is very similar to Labor’s, and that it is indeed quite worthy.
I like to think that commentators like Budde and I are pretty much in the middle of this policy debate — able to appreciate the merits of both sides, while not falling in love with either. However, ultimately, of course, I’m probably deluding myself — no journalist or commentator can be truly objective, and we all have our preferences (plus, normally a huge ego to boot). Real ethical behaviour only comes when those preferences are transparently disclosed and when we listen to the actual experts. We all learn as we go on.
Image credit: BuddeComm