news Several of the ABC’s flagship current affairs programs are largely ignoring the Coalition’s radical reshaping of Labor’s popular National Broadband Network project, analysis has revealed, as debate continues to swirl about the public broadcaster’s coverage of an initiative which constitutes Australia’s largest ever infrastructure project.
Under Labor’s previous NBN policy, some 93 percent of Australian premises were to have received fibre directly to the premises, with the remainder of the population to have been served by a combination of satellite and wireless broadband. However, since taking office the Coalition has drastically modified that policy, instructing NBN Co to go ahead with a model which will see 30 percent of the 93 percent served by the existing HFC cable networks owned by Telstra and Optus. A further 44 percent will receive a hybrid Fibre to the Node service (integrated with Telstra’s existing copper network), and only 26 percent will receive Fibre to the Premises.
The move has sparked extreme criticism from telecommunications industry experts as well as the general population. In January, for instance, veteran telecommunications analyst Paul Budde described the Coalition’s new “Multi-Technology Mix” approach as “a dog’s breakfast” of different technologies, which could turn out to be a “logistical nightmare” to deliver in practice. Some 272,000 Australians signed a record-breaking petition requesting the Coalition reconsider its plans.
Despite the controversy, an analysis conducted by Delimiter of the NBN-related coverage of three of the ABC’s top flagship current affairs programs over the past 18 months has found that only one — Lateline — covers the issue regularly or in any detail, while others such as 7:30 and Q&A have almost completely ignored the issue in that period.
The issue came to a head in late April, when Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull appeared on the broadcaster’s flagship panel discussion program Q&A alongside opinionated commentator Van Badham, who has emerged as a critic of the Coalition’s radical reworking of Labor’s NBN project.
Analysis of the questions submitted to the show before the episode went to air and published online on the ABC’s site showed that as a consequence of the two panellists’ participation, Q&A was inundated with at least many dozens of questions regarding the NBN as a topic, in both text and video form. However, the show did not choose to air any of the NBN questions, choosing to focus on unrelated issues. Pre-show briefing materials distributed to panellists and attendees before the episode contained no mention of the NBN, and host Tony Jones actively prevented Badham from discussing the issue with Turnbull.
Analysis conducted by Delimiter over the past week has shown that Q&A’s treatment of the issue on that occasion was not an anomaly for the show.
Turnbull was appointed Shadow Communications Minister in September 2010. Since that time, the Liberal MP has appeared on Q&A 12 times, or every few months. Despite the repeat appearances, on only three occasions — 28 April 2014, 10 February 2014 and 8 July 2013 and, did Q&A allow a formal question about the NBN topic to be asked by the audience. Turnbull’s appearances on Q&A while in the Communications portfolio are tabled below:
On two of those three occasions, host Tony Jones actively curtailed discussion on the NBN, allowing only very limited discussion of the topic, and only allowing Turnbull personally to respond to the issue at length, with other panellists only having very limited input.
The only occasion on which Jones has allowed extended discussion of the NBN during a show on which Turnbull was a panellist was on 8 July 2013, immediately prior to last year’s Federal Election in September, when Jones allowed a prolonged debate on the issue between Turnbull, then-Communications Minister Anthony Albanese and other figures. That extended debate lasted some 12 minutes, which represented a sizable chunk of the Q&A show.
Following the Q&A episode in April on which Turnbull appeared, the ABC issued a statement noting that Q&A attempted to cover as much of the national debate as it could in one hour, but pointed out that not all topics could be covered. At the time, it denied it had a deal with Turnbull for the Minister to not take questions on the NBN on Q&A.
“The NBN has been discussed on Q&A and answered by Malcolm Turnbull in past programs and no doubt will be discussed again in the future,” a spokesperson for the ABC said. “ABC news and current affairs programs have offered comprehensive coverage of the NBN as it has done with all issues on the national agenda.”
However, further analysis conducted by Delimiter has demonstrated that the ABC’s flagship current affairs programs often do not cover the NBN issue at all — especially the ongoing criticism of the Coalition’s unpopular radical overhaul of the project.
The broadcaster’s most high-profile show, 7:30, has not yet covered the NBN as a specific topic in 2014, despite the wide-ranging changes which the Coalition has made to the project and despite the fact that Turnbull has personally made several major policy announcements affecting it (see here and here). The lack of coverage also comes despite the fact that the NBN remains Australia’s largest ever infrastructure project.
Similarly, 7:30 only covered the NBN as a specific topic a handful of times throughout the 2013 calendar year. The show did not cover the issue at all as a specific topic in the months of January, February, March, May, August, October and November.
Coverage of the NBN topic during other months by 7:30 was typically largely limited to major announcements regarding the project, or Coalition criticism of Labor’s administration of the project. For example, 7:30 covered the Coalition’s rival NBN policy announcement in April 2013, asbestos concerns about the network’s construction in June and construction delays in July. Following the election, 7:30 broadcast three pieces on the NBN, largely reflecting information about the Coalition’s reshaping of the network.
In December, NBN Co released its Strategic Review, which included a number of options for radically reshaping the project. The release of the report was viewed with dismay by large segments of Australia’s technology sector, as its key recommendation significantly watered down Labor’s popular Fibre to the Premises NBN model, promoting instead a model involving the re-use of the HFC cable networks owned by Telstra and Optus. This model has not been implemented in this fashion overseas, and questions remain about its technical and commercial viability.
However, 7:30 did not detail the extensive industry criticism of the proposed new model, instead broadcasting only an interview with Turnbull about the changes.
The broadcaster’s late night show Lateline has covered the issue much more extensively and in what appears to be a more balanced fashion. In 2013 the show covered the issue in most months, leaving the NBN off its roster only in January, March, November and December. In addition, Lateline went much further than 7:30 or Q&A in challenging the Coalition’s approach to the project, broadcasting interviews with Labor figures such as then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy and Labor MP Ed Husic.
In August, immediately prior to the Federal Election, Lateline hosted the only broadcast debate between then-Communications Minister Anthony Albanese and Turnbull.
However, there have also been questions raised about Lateline’s coverage of the issue. On 10 April this year, NBN Co announced that it had turfed at least three key executives at the company after just one week of new chief executive Bill Morrow being in his role, with long-time and respected NBN Co head of corporate and commercial Kevin Brown, chief financial officer Robin Payne and chief technology officer Gary McLaren to leave NBN Co.
That night, host Tony Jones hosted a lengthy interview with Turnbull on Lateline. Jones strongly pushed Turnbull on a range of issues associated with the NBN — including the issue of whether rival telcos such as TPG should be allowed to overbuild the NBN network and the drastically watered down speeds possible under the Coalition’s version of the project.
However, Jones commenced the interview by asking about unrelated issues such as the release of the diaries of former NSW Premier and Foreign Minister Bob Carr, as well as proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act. In addition, Jones did not ask Turnbull about the executives who had lost their roles at NBN Co.
Throughout 2013 Jones held several other interviews with Turnbull on Lateline in which he pressured the Member for Wentworth on the NBN issue.
However, it does not appear as though Jones was similarly active in interviewing figures from the other major side of politics — Labor — with co-host Emma Alberici conducting most of the interviews or debates in that period which involved Labor politicians such as Senator Stephen Conroy (Communications Minister for much of 2013), his successor Anthony Albanese and Labor MP Ed Husic, who also retains a strong interest in the NBN and technology issues.
In addition, none of the ABC’s flagship programs — 7:30, Lateline or Q&A — have been active in interviewing other stakeholders in the NBN process. It has been extremely rare over the past 18 months that such shows have interviewed figures from the corporate world such as executives from Telstra, Optus, iiNet, TPG or Vodafone, or the minor political parties such as the Greens, or networking vendors from companies such as Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent. The shows have also not regularly featured telecommunications industry analysts, who have often been critical of the Coalition’s approach to the NBN.
Many figures from such organisations have strong views with respect to the National Broadband Network and have voiced their opinions in other media outlets regularly with regard to the project over the past several years, especially associated with the Coalition’s controversial proposed changes to the project.
The ABC’s approach to the issue comes as the University of Melbourne has recently released a comprehensive study of public attitudes towards Labor’s National Broadband Network project. The study found the initiative still enjoys very high levels of widespread public support from ordinary Australians, despite what the study described as an “overwhelmingly negative” approach to the project by print media such as newspapers.
In general, the only ABC journalist to have regularly and specifically covered criticisms of Labor’s NBN project over the past several years has been Nick Ross, the Editor of the broadcaster’s Technology + Games site.
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 in February 2013 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. For example, Channel 10’s The Project television show used Ross’s work extensively in sharply questioning Turnbull on his rival NBN policy.
Subsequent to his publication of several such articles, however, Ross was sharply attacked by Turnbull, who accused the journalist of creating “relentless propaganda” to support Labor’s NBN project, in a stance which the then-Shadow Communications Minister described in July 2012 as “embarrassing”. Ross was also strongly attacked for the coverage by The Australian newspaper, which was sharply critical of Labor’s NBN project while Labor was in Government. Since that period, Ross has published very little analysis of the NBN project.
The ABC’s own Media Watch investigated Ross’ coverage in March 2013. At the time, it noted that it would perhaps have been “safer” for Ross to only cover the for and against claims being made about the NBN project, without analysing them. However, host Jonathan Holmes stated at the time that to many media critics, this was a “cop-out” and represented “he said, she said” journalism.
Holmes found that Ross had, using his expertise and specialist knowledge of the NBN topic, had delivered analysis grounded in reporting work, using hundreds of reports and other sources; and had no political affiliations to weigh him down. In addition, he noted that mainstream media outlets such as The Australian Financial Review and The Australian newspapers had taken a broadly negative approach to the NBN; in contrast, he noted strong ABC reader support for Ross’s work.
One of the only other ABC journalists to regularly raise the issue of the NBN over the past several years has been Jake Sturmer, who from February through December 2013 was the broadcaster’s national science and technology reporter.
During his time in the role, Sturmer published a number of articles examining issues such as doubts over whether Telstra’s copper network could meet the needs of the Coalition’s rival NBN policy. Sturmer also covered NBN Co’s Strategic Review and its conclusion that the Coalition’s election policy of delivering 25Mbps broadband to all Australians by the end of 2016 was unrealistic.
However, it appears as though Sturmer was reassigned in January this year, as his LinkedIn profile now states he is the ABC’s national environment and science reporter. The journalist still reports for many of the same outlets — ABC News, 7:30, Lateline and the AM and PM radio shows — but his beat no longer explicitly covers technology, and Sturmer has largely ceased covering the NBN project.
Badham, whose blocked questions to Turnbull first sparked debate about the ABC’s coverage of the NBN in April, wrote in early May for The Guardian that Turnbull was escaping public scrutiny of his radical changes to the NBN project.
“Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull may not want to answer many questions about the National Broadband Network, but it shouldn’t stop Australians from asking them,” Badham wrote. “After all, since last September, Turnbull has reneged on pre-election NBN commitments, admitted to giving misleading statements about Labor’s costings, made chummy appointments, ignored expert economic consideration, and infuriated the near-entirety of the professional tech community. And yet, the minister has been able to dodge much deserved public excoriation.”
Delimiter has attempted to contact the ABC’s media spokespeople to invite a response to the issues raised in this article.
Image credit: ABC