news Liberal MP Paul Fletcher has written to the competition and press regulators complaining about what he said were misleading advertorial-style paid articles about the National Broadband Network, despite the fact that NBN Co has denied paying for the articles, which were independently written by News Ltd and Fairfax journalists and, in one case, sponsored by Optus.
At the heart of the MP’s complaints are several articles published over the past few weeks in the News Ltd-owned newspaper the North Shore Times and Fairfax-owned newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald. The SMH article doesn’t appear to be available online, but Fletcher has replicated a copy of the North Shore Times article on his website, along with his letters to the authorities. The article, entitled “Rolling out the NBN”, was published without a journalistic byline and presents information about the NBN which appears to be broadly slanted towards the aim of informing residents about the project, without critically examining the debate about the project’s merit, which has raged fiercely over the past five years.
“While we may not need these speeds right now, we will in the future if we want to keep up with world trends,” it notes. “Apart from everyday Internet access at home, the network also has the potential to offer new applications in business, healthcare and education … The Government’s most recent estimates say the network will be finished about 2021 and generate revenue of $5.8 billion in that year.”
In both cases, the articles in the newspapers appeared on pages next to paid advertisements which NBN Co had purchased as part of its broad brush education campaign to inform the public about its three year rollout plans, which were recently unveiled. However, in several letters to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Press Council, Fletcher alleged that the articles were paid “advertorial” — that is, articles which had been paid for by NBN Co.
“This material is presented to give the appearance of being a news feature, however on analysis it is an uncritical promotion of the NBN,” he wrote. “Accordingly, I write to ask that the ACCC consider whether this presentation constitutes misleading or deceptive conduct by NBN Co in breach of section 18 of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.”
Fletcher further asked the regulators to consider whether individual statements in the material were misleading or deceptive, such as the articles’ claims around the cost of the NBN, the state of the rollout in South Australia and Tasmania, and estimates around the revenue projections and target completion date of the project.
Referring to the Sydney Morning Herald report, Fletcher told the Australian Press Council that “the report reads very much as a promotional piece for NBN and is thus lacking balance and one-sided. It is unclear if the report is an advertorial or news content,” he added, noting there was no disclosure if the article was a paid advertisement, as is usually required. Fletcher also wrote to Amanda Wilson, Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, expressing similar complaints.
In a statement on his website, Fletcher similarly attacked NBN Co.
“NBN Co appears to have engaged in a blitz of misleading print media marketing which blurs the boundaries between news content and advertising,” he wrote. “The Australian public deserves to know who is paying for this misleading public relations material, and for there to be a clear delineation between news content and flagrant promotion.”
However, Fletcher’s statements questioning the basis of the articles, and speculating that they were paid for by NBN Co, appear to be unfounded. NBN Co said in a brief statement through its official Twitter account last night that it had not paid for any of the so-called advertorial material.
“NBN Co did not pay for or solicit the supplement that appeared in The Age/SMH. Nor did we have any influence over the editorial content,” the company said. “We responded to queries from journalists writing the supplement as we would every legitimate journalistic query. And we receive on average 100 queries a week from media. Nor did we pay for or dictate the editorial content in the article in News Community newspapers. The editorial space was negotiated after NBN Co took out advertisements in the titles to inform people of the rollout. We were asked to contribute information and check facts. But the article was written by a News Limited journalist.”
Optus has told the Sydney Morning Herald that in fact, it sponsored one of the supplements exclusively (it appears from the SMH article that Optus sponsored the SMH supplement, but this is a little unclear). ”As the supplement explores the opportunities and benefits that the NBN will open up to end-users, Optus felt this was an ideal advertising fit as we have been a strong advocate for choice and competition over the last 20 years,” an Optus spokesperson told the SMH.
The Australian Press Council and ACCC have not yet responded to Fletcher’s queries, and his office has not yet returned calls for comment this morning. NBN Co has confirmed that Fletcher did not contact it about the matter asking whether it had sponsored the articles before publishing his letters and media statement on the issue.
Over the past several years, there have been a number of misleading articles published in various segments of the media about the NBN. In December, 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 this 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, neither Fletcher nor other members of the Coalition attacked the misleading articles at the time. It is believed that much of the Liberal MP’s concerns over the articles this week revolve around the fact that they published somewhat uncritical information painting the NBN project in a positive light. Most of the previous articles about the NBN which have been found to be misleading have attempted to paint the project in a negative light.
Are the articles published by Fairfax and News Ltd about the NBN inaccurate? Not really. But they definitely are very uncritical and hardly objective. Fletcher was right to be suspicious about them. By no stretch of the imagination could they be called journalism; they merely take basic information about the NBN, probably from NBN Co’s website, and present it to the public as educational information about the project.
Reading the articles, they would appear to be the very definition of the kinds of “advertorial”-style advertising features which are often published in newspaper supplements. And, of course, these features are often paid for by advertisers directly. I think everyone knows this. Certainly everyone in the media does.
However, Fletcher also didn’t do his homework on this one. The facts are that NBN Co didn’t pay for these ads; a fact which the MP could have ascertained merely by calling NBN Co and asking the company. Fletcher didn’t need to contact the SMH, the ACCC or the Australian Press Council as a first step to ascertain the truth here; he could have contacted NBN Co first directly, and found out that it hadn’t paid for the articles, before he went off half-cocked in his huge series of letters and media releases.
The articles may be bad journalism, they may be uncritical; they may even, from a certain point of view (although it’s not my point of view) be false. But there’s no foul play here by NBN Co. There may be some disingenuousness on the part of Optus, as a sponsor of one of the supplements, but Fletcher didn’t attack Optus as part of his rage campaign. Interestingly, as many readers would know, Optus was Fletcher’s employer (he was the telco’s regulatory chief) before he became an MP in 2007.
There is also an essential hypocrisy here in Fletcher’s actions.
It is very common for major newspapers and other media outlets to run articles severely criticising the National Broadband Network project. Sometimes the articles have merit, but often they don’t, and over the past year we’ve chronicled at Delimiter a number of times when major articles about the NBN have simply been factually incorrect.
But Fletcher has never complained bitterly to the ACCC, the Australian Press Council or the media outlets concerned about those inaccurate articles; only about those articles which he feels have been unfairly positive towards the NBN. Obviously, this is because criticism of the NBN — even if it is unfounded — aids the Coalition, as the project is one of the key policy planks of the Labor Government, whereas articles praising the NBN conversely would appear to aid Labor.
If Fletcher is truly interested in stopping misinformation being spread about the NBN — and I will be the first the acknowledge that the articles he complained about this week are pretty bad articles, although not blatantly inaccurate — then he needs to stop having double standards, and complain about all inaccurate, biased or slanted articles about the NBN. To a fair-minded and honest person concerned with truth, it should not matter who is aided by an article about a topic area they are interested in — merely whether that article is accurate and contributes to the debate.
But perhaps this is a concept which would escape an Australian politician in 2012.
Image credit: Office of Malcolm Turnbull