ABC insists NBN coverage “adequate, appropriate”



news The ABC has issued a statement insisting its coverage of the National Broadband Network debate has been “adequate and appropriate”, despite several of the broadcaster’s flagship current affairs shows largely ignoring the issue and revelations that it delayed a pro-NBN article by Lateline host Emma Alberici until after the Federal Election.

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, despite regular appearances by the Coalition’s communications policy leader Malcolm Turnbull. The issue has been shut down live on air on Q&A several times.

Following the analysis, last 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.

In a statement issued last week, the broadcaster backed its coverage of the NBN topic.

“As previously communicated to you, the ABC does not make any agreements with on-air talent about topics that can or cannot be discussed,” the broadcaster said. “The notion that the ABC would “shut down” discussion on any topic is comprehensively rejected.”

“The ABC is not a one-issue news organisation and when the communications minister Malcolm Turnbull is interviewed on any of our platforms, producers and presenters must base their questions on the news of the day and what is of interest to our general audience, not just to IT reporters.”

“Our story and interview selection is based on the news value of each story and an assessment of how we can add value to the story. The NBN is a complex issue and much of the minutiae and detail is not suitable for a nightly general news audience. Our coverage of the NBN issue has been adequate and appropriate.”

Analysis conducted by Delimiter has shown that since Malcolm Turnbull was appointed Shadow Communications Minister in September 2010, 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.

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 ABC has previously denied it had any sort of agreement with Turnbull not to cover the NBN on air.

The ABC said in its statement last week that with relation to Q&A, “each week the program draws on the questions and concerns of viewers and audience members to cover as much of the national debate as it can in the one hour it goes to air. Not all topics can be covered.”

“The NBN has been discussed on Q&A and commented upon by Mr Turnbull and a wide range of other political leaders and commentators in past programs,” the broadcaster added. “No doubt the NBN and related policies will continue to be discussed in the future.

Lastly, Delimiter also asked the ABC to comment on whether it currently had any journalists dedicated to covering the technology area. One journalist who had formerly been reporting on the NBN, the editor of the broadcaster’s Technology & Games site, has largely backed away from the topic following an investigation of his coverage by Media Watch, despite the fact that the show largely exonerated Ross of allegations of bias. Another reporter, Jake Sturmer, appears to have been reassigned away from the technology beat. “Nick Ross is the ABC’s technology editor, a respected and dedicated journalist in this area,” the ABC statement said in response to the question.

Image credit: Screenshot of Q&A program on the ABC featuring Van Badham and Turnbull, believed to be OK to use under Australian fair dealing provisions


  1. I think the ABC have put Nick Ross on a tight leash, with a gag, hands ties behind his back and feet in concrete boots. That’s what seems to have happened ever since he wrote that article on the NBN in early 2013. He might be talented, but it is hard to type technological articles with your nose.

  2. Yep.. Silenced into submission by the Govt.. How come nick ross no longer covers the nbn.. How come the nbn is no longer covered period?
    There is no doubt in my mind the Govt has put political pressure on the ABC ..

  3. Well, it seems the ABC are starting to get a little cross with you, Renai. I’d say perhaps you’re pushing the right buttons.

    “Our coverage of the NBN issue has been adequate and appropriate.”
    What an absolute fabrication.

      • I think this is an appropriate quite for the situation.

        First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
        Mahatma Gandhi

        Although there is no record of him stating it, I believe it to be appropriate none the less.

      • Keep up the good work.

        You must be asking the right questions to get a response like

        “The ABC is not a one-issue news organisation and when the communications minister Malcolm Turnbull is interviewed on any of our platforms, producers and presenters must base their questions on the news of the day and what is of interest to our general audience, not just to IT reporters.”

        Love the last bit “not just to IT reporters”

        • “Love the last bit “not just to IT reporters””

          Exactly correct…when you have an issue like the NBN that is so important to the vast majority of voters (as all polls have shown) and even extends across party lines, I might want to go out on a limb and say that while it may not be important to the editors at the ABC, it most certainly is to most Australians.

          I am quite saddened by the new ABC…it feels like the last gasps of a dying ideal.

        • There is a grain of truth to it, though, in that whenever the NBN is discussed the conversation often gets bogged down in technical details most viewers still don’t understand. Either that, or it’s discussed by people who don’t understand the technical details themselves.

          This happened last time the NBN was seriously discussed on Q&A. End result was that, even though to the tech minded Turnbull’s talking points were ridiculous, to the *average viewer* he actually walked all over the rest of the panel. Not exactly a good outcome.

          If the NBN fight is to be seriously covered by the mainstream media, they first need people who can cover it both accurately AND appropriately to the target audience. These are hard to come by. Ultimately, the case for the NBN will be best put to the public by economists.

          “Do it right, do it once, do it with fibre” is the correct sentiment but even that saying to most people is meaningless and of little impact. Very very rarely is Turnbull taken to task on the argument that his proposal will be cheaper (long term), in his own terms. He should be.

          • This is why Emma Alberici was so good during the election debate. Because she understood the topic and held each side to the facts — not to their respective fancies.

      • “The ABC is not a one-issue news organisation and when the communications minister Malcolm Turnbull is interviewed on any of our platforms, producers and presenters must base their questions on the news of the day and what is of interest to our general audience, not just to IT reporters.”

        The bit that annoys me about MSN coverage, including the ABC’s, is the lack of attention given to the financial side of the project.

        Journos mostly just take Turnbull word and repeat his unsubstantiated claims even after the SR was released and contradicted many of the more extreme ones like the $90-100b build cost.

        They mostly overlooked the cost blowout of over $10b for Turnbull’s MTM, this was bad enough. But the thing that makes it truly horrendous is it was predicted by many following the policy even without multi million dollar consultancies. Any other politician would have their competency questioned.

        I don’t think it is a conspiracy within the ABC, it could just be lazy journalism from lazy journalists.

  4. Was the ABC’s statement written by a Turnbull staffer?

    “The ABC is not a one-issue news organisation and when the communications minister Malcolm Turnbull is interviewed on any of our platforms, producers and presenters must base their questions on the news of the day and what is of interest to our general audience, not just to IT reporters.”
    This response’s wording smacks of Turnbull: Dismissive, contemptuous and avoiding the issue.

  5. So because Australia’s largest infrastructure project is ‘complicated’ it doesn’t get coverage? Is that what they’re saying?

  6. If I recall correctly, the Internet Filter received far more attention than the NBN. In fact more than half an episode was dedicated to it:

    So I don’t buy that the NBN, a major nationwide project spanning the best part of a decade and investment of billions of dollars (though in either scenario producing a return) has received fair coverage.

    • You’re right on the money with your last paragraph. The scope, cost, and future impact of the NBN should make it one of the most reported political stories from its inception to completion and beyond.

      “what is of interest to our general audience, not just to IT reporters.”
      IT reporters aren’t the only ones that use the Internet. That’s a very dismissive comment for a company that’s been progressive enough to implement and maintain iView the way the ABC has. iView isn’t just for the kids to be babysat by Peppa Pig re-runs.

    • Yeah, this is what keeps annoying me as well. There are so many aspects to the NBN that can be covered that arent about the technical side that there should be an ongoing debate on the topic.

      Financials, ROI, appointments, rollout planning, domestic disruption, politicising… The list goes on.

      So to say there has been adequate and appropriate coverage is rubbish. You cant have adequate coverage when there are so many questions to be answered, and as a result its not going to be adequate to ignore the elephant in the room, when you have the elephant handler next to you.

      Whats next, Turnbull appears on 4 Corners next week, and asked his opinion on the rugby league State of Origin? Then thanked for his time and valuable input…

  7. Renai,

    With the greatest respect I’d suggest that the frustrating issue you so correctly identify in the ABC’s coverage of the NBN is likely to be an unintentional symptom of a far greater problem.

    As perhaps Australia’s most credible technology writer you engage with complex technical and commercial issues on a daily basis.

    The technical and commercial nuance which is such an essential feature of the NBN discourse has not proven to be particularly interesting to the average Australian voter, indeed the high level of technical understanding required to truly comprehend the vast differences between the competing policy positions is rare for members of the general public.

    Interested and engaged observers of the roll out of the different options for the network will continue to flock here and to the few other media outlets that provide a rational and constructive analysis of the network’s implementation, but I fear that most average Australian’s are simply not that interested in the critical nuance you and your readers understand.

    Although it is certainly the ABC’s role to inform and educate Australians, dare I suggest that the issue is perhaps not always that well understood at all levels of the Corporation, and indeed despite strong leadership from the top the NBN doesn’t always connect (forgive the pun) with viewers as a critical issue of the day.

    • So, what you’re saying is that the NBN represents a very important point in Australia’s societal evolution whereby the public policy became too technically detailed to be within the capacity of a majority of the society’s intellect such that it has become ignored by the mainstream media as a ‘ratings-loser’ topic.

      • Sadly yes – the real challenge now is for technology champions such as those that frequent this site to encourage others to more actively engage in the ongoing debate around a complex but fundamentally important project.

        • Break the issue down then. There are technical discussions, financial discussions, time discussions, political discussions, performance discussions, education discussions…

          The technological benefits of the rollout is only part of what it will become, and how its being treated. Take the technology out of the discussion, and talk about other parts for a while.

          A simple discussion on the budgetting, and how they expect to make a ROI on the rollout has nothing to do with the technical aspects, and I’m sure beancounters out there would be willing to voice an opinion.

          Or how about the socioeconomic aspects of one burb having FttH while the next suburb becomes the red headed step-child because it doesnt. It will happen, I’m starting to see it already.

          The ABC is right, in that you cant just rehash the same question time after time. But there is so much more that could be asked.

          • The problem is, taken in isolation, any individual part of the NBN issue is open to cherry picked arguments.

            Take for instance the CBA arguments that have been on going since the project first started. From a pure economic point of view, then yes, there should have been a CBA.

            Socially though, it’s a no brainer (equal access for all).

            Technologically, it’s a no brainer (it’s the current tech every other country is using for new roll-outs, and it’s the most future proof of all the current techs).

            Taken as a whole, the original NBN easily trumps the no CBA thing, especially considering there were two reports from several reputable accounting firms that showed the numbers added up to make a positive ROI (regardless what Malcolm’s trashy report says).

          • Of course it is, but my point is that if they are sick of one part of the project, focus on a different part.

            What you write would be a wonderful topic on Q&A, if you could get financial focussed people together to discuss the pros and cons of both sides, CBA merits, etc.

            The technological argument seems clear to those that “get it”, but its not just us that need to be convinced. The claim that it will cost $30b more/less is a classic one that has never really been thrashed out in a public forum like that. No technology, purely the facts around what each one costs the taxpayer. Plenty that dont understand the technology get caught out with the dollars, so why not educate them

          • “What you write would be a wonderful topic on Q&A, if you could get financial focussed people together to discuss the pros and cons of both sides, CBA merits, etc.”

            Actually, I’d love to see something like that, I don’t really recall seeing a decent economic/accounting dissection of either plan from independent economists/accountants, it’s always been Turnbull and Conroy in “he said, she said” argy-bargy.

            Get folks like Paul Budde, Saul Eastlake and other expert guys like that and actually “have it out” finally…

        • I’ve had many a headbanging discussion with my mother-in-law who is most definitely should be mentally capable of understanding some of the issues, but every conversation she keeps coming back to familiar MT-esque arguments that are straight from the Liberals playbook which I’ve already countered a number of times (particularly, it “costs” $x billion which is better spent on roads, hospitals, education – she just never “got” the whole accounting of it all, despite claiming to be knowledgeable of accounting).

          It highlights the lack of publicity and marketing undertaken by the previous government.

          I’d like to see a half-hour show discussing the differences between copper, HFC, and fiber with some pretty graphs showing timelines of their advances in speeds, degradation over time, speed degradation over distance, maintenance costs over time, effects of weather on performance. And then there’s that whole mobile coverage versus fixed line non-issue that somehow became an issue. Use moderately populated cities as a case-study in over-subscription.

          Clear the damn FUD in the mainstream media, and do it in a way that embarasses the pollies that have been arguing against facts. That will create a story, that will make headlines and create more interest.

          Alright, that rant’s been sitting for a while. Glad to have it out.

    • It’s all very sound (and sadly poignant) logic, but it doesn’t address issues such as Nick Ross being silenced on such issues for almost a year now. ABCs’ response champions him for his technical coverage, but since his last attack on the Coalitions farcical NBN, what coverage has there been, exactly?

    • Tristan I agree with your comments, this is why the NBN has become political fodder. Ministers can lie their ass off and not be held to account by the public. The average Australian has no idea on which side of politics who is right or wrong on particular issues surrounding the NBN. The support for the project almost boils down to which football team you cheer for. Those with left views seem to value it as a nation building project, those with right views see it as labors expensive failed white elephant. Very few can explain what are the actual issues and challenges that face the NBN.

  8. Agreed Toby – I’m not sure what reasonable explanation there can be for the resounding silence other than a decision somewhere within the ABC that the editorial heat was too much in the context of (perhaps) limited understanding of the importance of the issues.

    • To then turn around and categorically state that their coverage has been adequate is as farcical as the current state of the NBN itself…

  9. That’s like saying the finance, investment and global business topics are too nuanced, too complex for the average viewer to comprehend or be interested in, yet how many programs do the ABC have catering very specifically to those areas?

  10. I think the ABC are terrified of offending their new overlords as the carry a very big stick and know how to use it.
    As for Nick, didn’t he give up in disgust feeling the debate was lost?

  11. I think part of the problem is that fundamental infrastructure is boring .. and boring things don’t get reported.

    As someone who job involves explaining the benefits of efficient large scale IT infrastructure solutions, I know how hard this is. It’s an unfortunate fact that well designed infrastructure, like electrical generation and transmission, or the plumbing in your house should be boring, it should just “be there”, it is the applications that sit on top of that infrastructure that is important and make for good news. These are the things people interact with on a regular basis, hence the internet filter was news, but digging holes and putting dark fibre in them is not.

    Schools and hospitals are also infrastructure, but they are big and visible and tie into things that have broad emotional appeal … kids and health … when we see a crappy school or a hospital with possum piss running down the walls we get upset and it makes the news. When your youtube videos or game of thrones torrents run slowly nobody really cares. The ABC kills the discussions around the NBN because outside of geeks like us NOBODY CARES if you build a network out of fibre, copper, or long pieces of wet string.

    We care because we can see the future that can be built on that infrastructure, things that make traditional schools and hospital based healthcare irrelevant. We love these possibilities, but many (most of the electorate ??) are frankly scared shipless about it.

    We may be technology professionals, evangelists or future visionaries, but we do not make the majority of the population, many of whom fear the technology of the internet of things that the NBN would enable. It is this majority of the population who’s taxes will pay for this infrastructure, and politicians are good at judging what they want to pay for and what they don’t (it’s their job, it’s how they get elected and keep their power), so it should be no surprise that we are getting these results from a political system that constantly rewards populism at the expense of statesmanship.

    Don’t blame the ABC, they are being asked to maintain their relevancy by people with very short purse-strings, and it does that by being entertaining and attracting viewers, I wish they were more, and often they are, but unless you want to turn the NBN into a political football (not in their masters interests), the only other discussion you could have would be about the merits of its original technical approach will bore 98.95% of the population in less than sixty seconds.

    If you really want the NBN, get something onto “A current affair” about how our kids are falling behind Singapore because we don’t have ubiquitous fibre based broadband, or highlight how kids are dying in the outback because of crappy telemedicine, or that our manufacturing industries like holden are being destroyed because they had the wrong kind of broadband .. none of that is true (yet), but as one pressman once said “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story”


  12. “The ABC is not a one-issue news organisation and when the communications minister Malcolm Turnbull is interviewed on any of our platforms, producers and presenters must base their questions on the news of the day and what is of interest to our general audience, not just to IT reporters.”

    Much like the government it’s self, it seems the ABC just doesn’t ‘get’ the benefits that could come from the NBN, for all Australians.

    There are a lot more people interested in it than “IT reporters”…

  13. It could be totally innocent. I’d give the ABC the benefit of the doubt on this but keep a close eye on future coverage for the next few months.

    Maybe suggest a report on Malcolms MTM?

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