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Analysis, Opinion, Telecommunications - Written by Renai LeMay on Monday, June 2, 2014 15:14 - 60 Comments
The ABC must now deal with its NBN problem
opinion Over the past month, the evidence has become overwhelming that the ABC is actively censoring coverage of the National Broadband Network issue in a way that runs counter to the public interest. The broadcaster must now face the issue squarely and deal with it head-on, or run the risk of losing credibility with its highly informed and vocal audience.
If you’ve been reading Delimiter’s coverage over the past month relating to the ABC’s editorial approach to the National Broadband Network issue, you may have noticed a rather stark difference between this specific series of articles and Delimiter’s usual fare.
Usually, when I publish detailed news articles on Delimiter, I include a separate section of content at the end of each straight news article separately labelled as ‘opinion/analysis’. I do this because it allows me to add context, insight and background to stories — as well as my own opinion about the facts — while still encouraging me to keep opinion and analysis separate. Readers like the format as well, and it provokes discussion.
However, with respect to Delimiter’s recent articles about the ABC, I completely avoided this format, sticking to straight news. There was a very good reason why I did this.
While I don’t like everything the ABC does (I can’t stand Chris Lilley, for example), and I have some of the usual independent publisher quibbles about some of its funding, I am a huge fan of much of the broadcaster’s content. I have been watching Media Watch for a decade. I try and catch up on 7:30 and Lateline before I hit the sack every night. Despite its flaws, I still watch Q&A regularly. And I also daily read and sometimes contribute to The Drum. Like most people who live and die on Australia’s news cycle, I have always considered the ABC a core part of my daily bread and butter media consumption.
Before I began writing the series of articles on the ABC’s NBN coverage, I had been receiving requests from readers to analyse the topic for quite a few months, as well as information from sources about the situation. In addition, as an avid consumer of the ABC’s journalism, I had been independently aware that it rarely focused on the NBN. Like others, I had noted the regular escapes which Shadow- and then Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull had been making with respect to NBN questions, and the lack of depth in the ABC’s NBN coverage in general.
However, I had previously viewed this as an anomaly rather than as a strong trend, and I didn’t want to dive head-first into slamming our national broadcaster at a time when it already had more than enough problems to deal with. So I avoided investigating the issue for some time.
At a certain point in late April, however, the evidence that the ABC was actively censoring the NBN topic from being discussed on some of its shows became overwhelming. Behind the scenes and on the night, commentator Van Badham made every attempt possible to ensure that Turnbull would face questions on the 28 April episode of Q&A about the NBN. For her efforts, she was shut down live on air — twice, in front of a stupefied audience which wanted the discussion to progress.
Following these events, and given the background information I already had, I really had no choice but to investigate the ABC’s coverage of the NBN. The evidence had been stacked up right in front of my eyes that something disturbing was going on, and many readers were repeatedly requesting that I stick my nose in. Even at that stage, however, I still maintained a lot of faith in the ABC and didn’t want to undercut one of the only mainstream media organisations which has actually covered the NBN in any objective sense at all.
So I made the decision to avoid publishing opinion and analysis about the situation until the whole situation became clear. Given the contentious nature of the topic and the close relationship the ABC has with its many fans, as well as my personal feelings on the topic, I wanted to merely present the evidence that I was able to gather about the situation and let people decide for themselves about whether there was a “conspiracy” at the ABC to censor the NBN topic or not.
The disturbing outcome from that approach is that it has gradually painted a picture which is even worse for the broadcaster than if I had been railing at the ABC with my own opinion from the start. The sheer bald facts of the matter are inescapable and rather shocking when collated together. They are as follows:
- Malcolm Turnbull has appeared on the ABC’s flagship discussion show Q&A 12 times since he was appointed Shadow Communications Minister. He has faced extended questions on the NBN (his main policy area) just once. On all other occasions, the host has actively shut down the topic or avoided it completely.
- The ABC’s flagship current affairs show 7:30 hasn’t covered the NBN at all in 2014, and covered it only sporadically and in a shallow fashion in 2013, ignoring almost all the ongoing criticism of the Coalition’s highly unpopular and damaging NBN policy.
- Where other ABC flagships such as Lateline have covered the NBN, they have sometimes let Turnbull somewhat off the hook, such as when host Tony Jones failed to ask Turnbull about NBN Co’s decision to turf three of its most senior and competent executives on the day he was interviewed.
- Where the NBN has been covered in detail by the ABC, it appears mainly to have been the efforts of individual passionate journalists which has spurred such coverage. However, those reporters have been sequentially deterred from pursuing that coverage. Emma Alberici had her pro-NBN article delayed until after the Federal Election, when its impact would be severely diminished. Nick Ross is popularly believed to have been silenced after his Media Watch debut. And Jake Sturmer was simply reassigned.
The degree to which the ABC is aware of the criticism of its NBN coverage was demonstrated last week by the fact that its managing director Mark Scott turned up to Senate Estimates prepared with statistics showing how many NBN articles it had published over the past eight months (see Part 1 and Part 2 of his appearance on YouTube). However, the executive’s misleading statement to the Senate about the issue of Turnbull’s appearances on Q&A did much to undercut the high ground Scott was attempting to take, whether it was inadvertent or deliberate.
(I’ve asked the ABC whether Scott will retract his inaccurate statement to the Senate that Turnbull has fielded NBN questions on Q&A on “very many” occasions. The answer was a flat “No comment”.)
And already speculation is flying around that many of the “150” NBN stories Scott boasted of were merely small articles relating to NBN Co’s rural NBN rollout, or straight news pieces regarding ministerial announcements. The deep analytical pieces of content on that list are likely to be few and far between.
With the facts out there now, and most having had their chance to examine them, I felt it might be time this week to make my own opinion on the situation known.
My first position is that I agree with Mark Scott when he says that there is no “conspiracy” at the ABC to censor coverage of the NBN. I’ve seen no evidence of a group of white, middle-aged men in a basement room fielding phone calls from Malcolm Turnbull and discussing how the ABC can better align with the doublespeak that Australia’s increasingly powerful Murdochracy is adept at delivering.
I personally suspect there are two main reasons why the NBN censorship is occurring, both of them rather obvious. The first and most pernicious one is that senior ABC figures are doubtless leery of letting the broadcaster strongly criticise its own portfolio Minister over one of his other government projects. Doing so resulted in strong criticism from Turnbull in Opposition; one can only imagine how the Member for Wentworth would react in Government. Despite claiming to be a “friend” of the ABC, Turnbull has lost none of his bile as a Minister.
Secondly, I suspect that most of the ABC’s editorial staff consider the NBN to be an unpopular topic which they, and the majority of Australia’s population, find hard to understand. Certainly Lateline and Q&A host Tony Jones appears to lack the specific interest in the topic which his colleague Emma Alberici clearly evinces. Unlike most major news organisations, the ABC employs almost no dedicated specialist technology journalists to aid with this understanding.
(This results in a sometimes hilarious lack of expertise at the organisation. I often receive requests for information via email from ABC journalists across all its platforms who want me to provide expert commentary to their audience — something that doesn’t happen with other media organisations. Just last week a producer from one of the flagship TV shows mentioned in this article asked me for my views on password security — an issue that has been covered to death over the past decade. Few journalists at the ABC appear to understand how to deal with the technology sector or how to find an expert to comment on any kind of technology issues. I responded by pointing out that the NBN was a significantly more important issue and that they should look into that instead …)
But at this point, it hardly matters. No matter what the reasons are, and no matter what’s going on behind the scenes, it remains accurate to say that the facts are that the ABC is censoring coverage of the NBN on its flagship outlets.
Journalists at the broadcaster — even journalists as senior as Alberici — are just not free to openly and honestly write what they think about the NBN, without carefully considering the political ramifications for the broadcaster and, perhaps, their own career. And I am personally quite disturbed to discover that fact.
My opinion is that this situation cannot be allowed to go on. The NBN represents Australia’s largest ever infrastructure project as well as an effort to restructure an entire industry and set in place fundamental bedrock that will underpin the entirety of the nation’s future economy. The ABC does not shy away from discussing complex economic, legal, regulatory, social, educational or health issues or projects. It should not shy away from discussing complex and important topics when they venture in the technology realm or into the shadow of its portfolio Minister. Malcolm Turnbull’s potentially disastrous overhaul of the NBN must not escape public scrutiny.
I will leave readers with a quote from a speech the ABC’s director of Editorial Policies Paul Chadwick gave to a conference in September 2012 (PDF). At the time, Chadwick reminded the audience of the responsibility of the ABC to ensure it met standards of accuracy, impartiality, independence and integrity. Chadwick went on:
“The extent to which the public broadcaster maintains those standards will have a bearing on whether it remains credible and trusted. Unless credible and trusted, a public broadcaster loses legitimacy. Questions arise about why it should be publicly supported. Those who covet its spectrum or its audiences grow restive. Those who would clip its independence grow bolder. Those who would ordinarily defend it grow doubtful. The cry goes up for more regulation.”
The ABC exists in a fragile era, beset on one side by a commercial media which would love to see it cut or at least privatised, and on the other by an extremely conservative Federal Government which, spurred by free market think tanks such as the Institute of Public Affairs, would love to follow through on such requests.
The Abbott administration has already taken its first swing at the ABC in this year’s Federal Budget. Thus far, the only thing protecting the public broadcaster is the abiding love and trust the public has for it. If that trust is diminished — as in, for example, if the ABC fails to impartially cover important national issues such as the NBN — then its defence against its attackers will be weakened. Appeals to Peppa Pig will not save it.
Now is not for the time for the ABC to step quietly in an effort to appease the will of its supposed political masters. Now is the time for the kind of fearless journalism that the broadcaster has been known for in the past, and still applies in some arenas, such as its sterling and ongoing investigation of the refugee situation. Ignoring complex issues such as the NBN will not make them go away; it will just make the ABC’s audience turn away. And that is something the broadcaster just cannot afford.
Image credit: Screenshot of the ABC’s Q&A program, believed to be covered under Fair Dealing
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