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