ABC delayed Alberici’s pro-NBN article until after the election


news The ABC delayed publishing an article by Lateline co-host Emma Alberici starkly critical of the Coalition’s rival National Broadband Network policy until after the election, it has emerged, as questions continue to be raised about the public broadcaster’s coverage of 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, the Coalition’s alternative vision unveiled in April 2013 featured a significant watering down of the project and a focus on technically inferior Fibre to the Node technology. It has since been watered down further, with an extended focus on re-using the existing HFC cable networks owned by Telstra and Optus.

The Coalition’s approach to the issue 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 have 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 has been shut down live on air on Q&A several times.

Following the analysis, this week it emerged that the ABC delayed publishing until after the Federal Election last year an article by Lateline co-host Emma Alberici that was sharply critical of the Coalition’s alternative National Broadband Network policy and ended up being one of the broadcaster’s most popular pieces of content on the topic.

The piece, entitled ‘Can the Coalition’s NBN keep pace with change?’ appears to have initially been written in August or early September 2013.

Alberici was actively engaged in researching the NBN topic at that time due to a live debate which the Lateline co-host was scheduled to host between Communications Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and then-Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull on 12 August.

Alberici’s engagement with the two politicians during the debate was highly informed by that research, with the journalist pushing both strongly with respect to their different NBN policies during the debate. It appears that this interest in the NBN topic spilled over into a commentary (opinion/analysis) article which Alberici sought to publish on the ABC’s The Drum site, as senior ABC regularly do. Alberici is a regular contributor to the site.

However, Delimiter understands that when Alberici sought to publish the article, a discussion ensued within the ABC about the piece. It is not clear why the article was delayed, but several sources agree that the ABC delayed publishing the article for a period likely to have been at least a week and perhaps more.

The timing of the publication was sensitive due to the political circumstances at the time. Last year’s Federal Election was held on September 7; a month after the NBN debate on Lateline on 12 August. Alberici’s article was published on the morning of September 9: The Monday morning after the Coalition swept to victory in the Saturday election.

Delimiter asked a spokesperson from the ABC whether they could confirm that the article’s publication was delayed, and to comment on why the delay took place. The spokesperson sent a broader statement responding to issues raised about the ABC’s NBN coverage in general (which will be published in full on Monday), but did not specifically address the question about Alberici’s article.

The article, when published, was severely critical of the Coalition’s rival NBN policy, with Alberici unfavourably comparing the Coalition’s FTTN focus to technically superior FTTP deployments in cities such as Chattanooga in Tennessee. The Lateline co-host wrote:

“The question the Coalition will need to answer now they’ve taken Government is whether digital innovation will be moving faster than Australia’s capacity, through their cut-price NBN infrastructure, to benefit from it … Mr Turnbull is adamant that it’s “very unlikely” Australians will need 1 gigabit of download speeds. That’s what they said about the World Wide Web.”

It was received very favourably by the ABC’s audience, with 562 comments published, many of which supported Alberici’s views. NBN articles in general tend to receive a great deal of audience attention when published on the Drum; several articles published by the author of this article in March and April 2013 received 537 and 432 comments respectively, indicating strong audience interest on the topic. Alberici also received strong support for the article on social media.

The unusual timing of the article was noted at the time by some readers. “Good article, but why wait til after the election?” wrote one Twitter user.

In addition, Alberici personally continues to express criticism of the Coalition’s NBN approach. On 14 April this year, the Lateline co-host wrote on her Twitter account that Turnbull had said gigabit broadband speeds were “more than anyone would need”. “How can you be so sure?” she asked, referring to the Chattanooga example. Also in April this year, Alberici tweeted that she was working on a segment on the NBN for the ABC’s 702 Local Radio station in Sydney.

Delimiter’s analysis of Lateline’s NBN-related coverage over the past 18 months has shown that the show covers the NBN issue much more extensively and in what appears to be a more balanced fashion, than some of the other flagship current affairs shows at the ABC. 7:30, for example, has not covered the NBN as a specific topic yet in 2014, and ignored the topic in 2013 in seven out of twelve months in 2013. 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.

In comparison, over the past 18 months, Lateline has covered the issue much more frequently and has covered criticism of the Coalition’s unpopular NBN alternative policy in significantly greater depth.

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 Alberici appearing to conduct most of the interviews or debates in that period which involved Labor politicians critical of the Coalition’s policy 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.

The news comes as it appears that other journalists at the ABC interested in the NBN issue have changed the way they cover the issue.

In general, the only other ABC journalist to have regularly covered criticisms of the Coalition’s NBN policy over the past several years has been Nick Ross, the Editor of the broadcaster’s Technology + Games site.

Ross’s articles in 2012 and 2013 had been very positively received by Australia’s technology sector, in a media environment in which few journalists have challenged disputed claims the Coalition has made regarding the NBN. In addition, other media outlets had started to use Ross’s work as a basis for investigating the differences between the two policies.

However, subsequent to his publication of several such articles, in mid-2012 Ross was attacked heavily on the issue by Turnbull, who accused the journalist of creating “relentless propaganda” to support Labor’s NBN project. 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.

The ABC’s own Media Watch investigated Ross’ coverage in March 2013, largely vindicating Ross’s approach (with a few caveats). Host Jonathan Holmes found that Ross, 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.

However, since the Media Watch episode investigating his NBN articles, Ross has largely ceased covering the NBN project in the lengthy analysis style he had been using previously. It is not clear why.

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.

Due to Sturmer’s role change, Delimiter asked the ABC this week whether it currently employed any journalists dedicated to covering the technology area. “Nick Ross is the ABC’s technology editor, a respected and dedicated journalist in this area,” the outlet responded.

Image credit: Screenshot of Emma Alberici from Lateline, believed to be covered under fair dealing provisions


  1. Hi Renai

    Your article seems to contain a lot of information already contained in your previous articles and each new article seems to be cumulative.
    Would it be possible to put thing already mentioned into a separate heading?

    Just a suggestion feel free to ignore it

        • Perhaps a background sub-header so the regulars can skip straight to the new stuff?

          Not a complaint though, I usually skim through the first few paragraphs like damien if it’s an ongoing issue, and I fully understand that new folks coming need to be caught up with all the earlier facts.

          • Use a “background” subheader for where you’re repeating “Under Labor’s NBN, 93%…” and other background filler, then reset to an “issue” header for the facts pertinent to the current article. Those new to the game can read to their leisure, but those of us up to speed can flick past the cut and paste.

            Just a thought.

  2. “Nick Ross is the ABC’s technology editor, a respected and dedicated journalist in this area,” the outlet responded.

    Who is no longer writing articles, from what I can tell. As if he has been gagged…. Great.

    • The ABC – a voice for the people, right?

      For all the references to China Stephen Conroy suffered for his ludicrous filter idea, this government gets away scot-free – they’re at least smart enough to censor the media, not the ISPs.

      • The clever thing is it isn’t even censorship, News Limited and to a lesser extent Fairfax wanted them to win, which gave them an easy ride pre-election.

        On the other hand the ABC has had the frighteners put on it, leading up to the 1% cut in funding in the budget, with the threat of more to come. There has to be a strong internal pressure not to do too many stories that may upset the Coalition, especially the minister who is ultimately responsible for you, so it is a form of self censorship.

  3. We can at least all be glad the expenditure is capped to $29.5 Bn.

    otherwise, how much would the heist on public money ended up costing – will NBN now desist from threatening TPG & iiNet from building fibre networks and now concentrate on providing broadband to those that have none at all?

    No, they wont.

    • It’s not even money spent to buy votes, it’s money spent to lose votes and give Turnbull’s buddies a cushy job.

  4. This is not the only issue the ABC has been compromised on.

    If you cast your mind back a little way, you will recall a potential sale of the ABC to Murdoch.
    This is why there was no need for that to happen.
    The product is already in situ.

  5. Notice the ABC is running dead on the story about Abbott’s daughter’s $60,000 scholarship. The story has gone global, but the ABC is looking the other way. What’s going on in that organisation??

    • The answer is that many senior appointments in private and government organisations have become political. Telstra has extraordinary links with the liberal party and Macquarie is another example. Head of ABC? Well, do a little digging and decide for yourself.

      We really need a renewal of democracy and technology is, in my opinion, the most friendly way to get there.

  6. I hadn’t realized the ABC was so politically borked until after the elections. I always thought they were mostly impartial.. I was wrong.!

  7. Looks like the Coalition finally got to the ABC….at least we still have Renai and the Guardian…

  8. I thought ABC was meant to be run as an independent?

    MSM has well and truly dropped the ball and failed to connect with their reader/viewer/listener base with respect to the NBN. Polls are still showing it is hugely popular in the general communities but it just never gets any traction in the media. Appalling!

    • “I thought ABC was meant to be run as an independent? ”

      It is. The only control a government has over the ABC , is via it’s funding, besides that, they have full editorial independence.

      So when a government hit’s it’s funding, at least we know they are trying to exert control, unlike the APS departments, who are required to follow ministerial direction (which is mostly in secret these days).

      • It’s funding, and who it appoints to the board. Can’t recall if senior executives are political appointees…

  9. For most of my long life I would have vigorously defended the ABC, but recently my opinion has changed drastically.

    Each night I have a quick look at the TV and Radio guide and note any programs I might like to watch.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I haven’t bothered to switch on the TV for months now, and there’s almost no radio shows I bother with anymore. This includes both ABC and SBS (there hasn’t been anything worthwhile on Commercial Media for years, I don’t even bother checking their program guide).

    The thing is, life is too short. There are so many excellent things to watch or listen to on the Internet, that the ABC and SBS comes a poor last. That and all the great books I have lined up on my Kindle.

    I think the Internet is now a better source of independent News and Analysis than our conventional Media.

    For me at least, both the ABC and the SBS are now so Right Wing, and so dumbed down, that they are unbearable.

    I never thought I’d say it, but I wouldn’t lose any sleep if Tony sold them both.

    • The only TV I actually watch any more is the ABC, if he did sell it off, I’d probably be like you and stop watching it altogether…

  10. Renai, since you have publicly supported the fttn plan [1] I am not sure exactly what you are complaining about. Isn’t this fttn build also the outcome you desired?


    • I said it was a sensible plan but that Labor’s FTTP option was superior on every front. And I certainly never advocated dumping any FTTX in metro areas in favour of buying the HFC networks.

      Check your premises, my friend ;)

  11. Since the inception of the ‘net, bandwidth has been the privilege of the corporate, research and educational sectors – business was not initially permitted on the ‘net, and the green card event on usenet [first spam] opened the doors to the misuse of the medium [you can’t deny there’s always someone with an exploitative eye out there]

    However, it took some time before processing technologies allowed the complexity to enable e-commerce, so that ‘net business was more than just a communications medium. And at the same time, conventional media infrastructure and tools [print, photographic emulsion, film] gave way to desktop publishing, printing, digital imaging/photography and video.

    Large media organisations kept with the pace of change, adopting new technologies within their production processes, whether they be print, or broadcasting [radio / television / film ]. It probably wasn’t initially within their comprehension that the ‘net itself could be the greatest gamechanger of them all.

    The growth in demand for ‘net access worldwide helped spur the development of better communication technologies, increasing bandwidth and speeds. WIthin the broadcasting industries research into better compression algorithms was also making the transmission of moving images [aka video] of reasonable, and increasing quality a possibility. Mobile telephony added the possibility of ‘net connectiveness

    And the final links in the chain were the i- and e- devices: portable devices that could connect and enable engagement whenever and where ever you wanted: So the static platforms of the bedside radio, the lounge-room television, and the newspaper were a bit ho-hum by comparison to the connected generation.

    Conventional media organisations were losing control over their market, because the market was engaged was no longer static, or single technology dependent. And because the ‘net was essentially an open access medium, if other organisations provided information through that medium that was in competition with their charged services, then the business model was in jeopardy.

    Media company strategies are/were, [beyond cost cutting] to try and regain monopolistic rights over the content or the delivery model, thereby negating the benefit of the open access of the ‘net. For example, “Game of Thrones” being totally tied up through one distributor and distribution method. At a governmental level, using “free trade” negotiations to change copyright and distribution rights to further restrict the flow of content between countries, and at a local level, siphoning popular programs to Pay Television models to retain earnings and ensuring that agreements are in place to block free access [e.g. geoblocking]

    At a television/video/film broadcasting level, Media Corporates have been protected by the fact that the general access bandwidth for many end-users is not sufficient for high quality, smooth motion, artefact free video images – but the result are improving all the time.

    Enter the ABC and the NBN. Both of these are serious threats to large corporate media. At the most basic level, the ABC’s foray into the world of ‘net connected news and information presents a headache for any traditional media organisation that wants to provide a paid news and information service; after all, if a government organisation can provide a “free” service to all users, which, by and large is respected as a centrist and credible information source, then the private media organisations have an interesting challenge to be able to provide a service, partially or fully pay-walled, that can out compete the ABC’s service. Of course there are some services that the ABC leaves to the commercial media, and the ABC’s technology capabilities are dependent on government funding, and a charter that guides them – A point of pressure that can be bought to bear on the public broadcaster.

    The NBN is a different threat: What the NBN can do is open up the communication medium so that small organisations can also engage in public broadcasting, or public narrowcasting, as the case may be. Entrance into the broadcasting business has traditionally been limited by the costs of licences, technologies and channels that are available. The NBN threatens to completely turn that scenario on its head.

    Before the federal election, some opinions, perhaps considered extreme, suggested that Murdoch and Foxtel wished to kill the NBN. Perhaps the strategy was simply to ensure that anything was a better outcome than a publicly owned NBN, as some level of ownership or control was needed to ensure that whatever the NBN could provide, it did not out-compete the corporate broadcasting connectivity that they already owned or could influence.

    That the ABC may have been [ and perhaps still be] reticent to apply full scrutiny to the NBN – MTM, without fear or favour, may be testament to an ongoing and growing politicisation of public broadcasting: As the ‘net technology growth makes connectivity a lesser limiting factor day by day, then the future of public broadcasting may become more threatened by large media vested interests wishing to protect their patch.

  12. what’s the issue that has been tackled in the show? is it the NBN’s completion report or the politician’s taking the achievement for NBN’s completion report?
    I think it is a good call for ABC to delay the release of the article because the report is about the NBN not the politician. Majority of the people will think that the politicians will use this report to make it their own achievement and look good to the people and use it to have more votes in the elections.

    • The report was largely critical and publication was pushed back to a date where it was too late for the public to react to it.

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