news Australia’s broadcast media regulator has cleared Alan Jones of any wrongdoing in a controversial broadcast in October 2012 in which the radio shockjock claimed the National Broadband Network was a “white elephant” and a “disaster” and that the future of telecommunications was “clearly wireless”, with the regulator giving Jones a pass because his statements were classified as “opinion” and not as “fact”.
Jones’ comments at the time stemmed from a report in The Australian newspaper that negotiations had collapsed between the Labor Federal Government and the Coalition NSW State Government over access to NSW power poles to aid in NBN Co’s fibre rollout across NSW.
“Well this NBN disaster rolls on,” said Jones. “The white elephant promotes cable technology when the future is clearly wireless. And it’s hopelessly behind schedule, hopelessly over budget, hopelessly unable to capture the public’s imagination. And will be obsolete before it’s built, but polls today say it’s 50-50 [laughs]. How high would they be in the polls if they got something right? Only about 15 per cent of households have bothered to connect to it where it’s been rolled out – 15 per cent.”
“Some say we’ll eventually fork out $50 billion to build it. It’s not in the budget, and it’s hard not to see why. Consider this for example, I see the O’Farrell Government is fighting a last-ditch battle with the Commonwealth over the cost of rolling out NBN cable onto New South Wales power poles where cable can’t go underground. The Federal Government’s now threatening to use draconian laws to overrule New South Wales, a move which the State Government says will force it to increase the cost of electricity to consumers by between $5 and $7 for 20 years.”
Subsequent to Jones’ broadcast, a number of listeners filed complaints with the Australian Communications and Media Authority. According to a judgement document published by the regulator last week, the complainants had alleged that a number of Jones’ claims had been factually inaccurate and did not present both sides of various arguments regarding the NBN debate.
On the issue of factual inaccuracy, it appears as though the complainants’ claims that Jones was wrong were accurate on several counts.
For example, the global telecommunications industry is currently almost universally in agreement that in every country, telecommunications needs will continue to be served by a mix of fixed and wireless infrastructure, rather than purely wireless as Jones claimed.
In addition, Jones’ comment that the NBN will be obsolete before it is built is also incorrect. The fibre technology while will constitute the vast majority of the NBN rollout contains the potential to be upgraded to deliver 1Gbps speeds to premises and potentially higher speeds in future; the deployment of this technology universally around Australia is expected to place Australia amongst the global leading countries when it comes to telecommunications. It is expected that this technology will be in use for multiple decades – at least between 30 to 50 years.
Also incorrect were Jones’ claims that the NBN was “hopelessly unable to capture the public’s imagination” and that the NBN should be included in the Federal Budget as an expense, rather than as a capital investment. In addition, Jones’ statement that only 15 percent of households have bothered to connect to the NBN where it has been rolled out was also misleading.
Jones’ statement that the NBN was behind schedule and hopelessly over budget did contain some grounding in truth.
However, in its judgement published last week (available online in PDF format here), the ACMA did not consider whether Jones’ claims were factually accurate or not, because it instead firstly defined them as being opinion rather than statements of fact. Because Jones’ controversial NBN claims could be classed as opinion, ACMA ruled, their factual inaccuracy was not an issue it could address.
Wrote the ACMA in its judgement: “The segment opened with a strong judgmental remark by Mr Jones which set the tenor and tone of the segment, ‘Well, this NBN disaster rolls on.’ It continued with a number of hyperbolic statements and predictions, including those about which the complaints were made.”
“Statements of this kind are inherently subjective and the use of exaggerated and emotive terms such as ‘white elephant’, ‘disaster’ and ‘hopelessly’ will often be indicative of an expression of opinion rather than fact. The line between fact and opinion is often not clear.”
“However, in this case, the ACMA is satisfied that the statements ‘the future is clearly wireless’ and that the NBN ‘will be obsolete before it’s built’ were expressions of opinion, as were Mr Jones’ statements concerning the degree of delay and excess in budget in the rollout of the NBN project.”
With respect to the need to present both sides of the argument, Jones’ station 2GB pointed out that on various occasions in the months of February through April 2012, various of its hosts, including Ben Fordham, Chris Smith and Ray Hadley, had reported news about the NBN, raed out NBN statements or interviewed then-NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley.
The ACMA noted in its judgement that because the ‘balance’ requirement was imposed on a radio station licensee, not a particular presenter or program, and that because 2GB had presented information which showed the NBN in a positive light, even though Jones specifically had not, and even though those presentations had taken place six months before the offending Jones broadcast on 29 October, that 2GB had met its obligations regarding balance.
The only complaint the ACMA upheld regarding Jones’ controversial NBN broadcast was in relation to 2GB’s complaints handling procedures. The station did not satisfactorily address complaints regarding Jones’ broadcast, claiming that it did not receive the complaint.
Uh …. what? So Alan Jones can just make whatever inaccurate statements he wants about the NBN live on air, and get away with it because they’re presented as opinion, not as fact? And balance is achieved because another, more moderate 2GB presenter interviewed Mike Quigley a couple of times six months before Jones’ broadcast?
Hogwash. That is what this is. Hogwash. Jones made blatantly inaccurate statements live on air to a large audience and got away with it completely, proving once again that the ACMA is a toothless tiger of a regulator.
But then … I find it extremely hard to be surprised by this eventuality. In an age where it seems every week that a senior Australian journalist deserts the profession to become a PR flack and many of the rest are investigating the thorny issues of sending sex toys into space or which brand of tomato sauce is served at McDonald’s, nothing should be surprising. Hell, some journalists, most journalists, are even prepared to believe that delivering university textbooks by drone is technically viable and represents a legitimate business model. One wonders what will be next.
Remember kids … “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” And above all … falsehoods, in our current media environment, are true.