New revelations and evidence have emerged that paints a murky picture of editorial process at the ABC.
In our piece last week, we covered the story of Nick Ross, an ex-ABC journalist who made extraordinary claims that his old employers attempted to suppress his articles criticising Coalition policy on the NBN. Across a number and tweets and during a very long reddit IAMA, Ross detailed the culture that he claims “gagged” and inhibited his ability to freely publish long form pieces that broke down the intrinsic and fairly well known problems with the Multi Technology Mix platform that is now being rolled out.
In an article published today on independent media site New Matilda, Ross revealed the details of a recording of a meeting that took place on the 28th of May, 2013, between himself and Bruce Belsham, the head of ABC’s Current Affairs division, in which they discuss the content of an unpublished article that was focused on the Fibre to The Node portion of the Coalition’s NBN plan. In the tape, which has not yet been released publically or transcribed in full, Belsham allegedly states that he is under “internal and external” political pressure over Ross’s coverage.
It is also alleged that Ross was told to create an “insurance policy”, in order to cover themselves from political interference should the Coalition win the next election. This policy would essentially be a “hard headed” piece on Labor’s NBN failings, mainly the fact that it would be unlikely to be completed due to the impending election of the Abbott government. It was also claimed that Belsham was in support of the article being published, but that downward pressure from management was forcing his hand.
Later on in the meeting, Belsham is also alleged to have candidly provided his own opinions on the NBN, stating that “for a range of reasons, the (Labor) NBN plan is not what the country will get and... It will be a failure, because it won’t be delivered”. When questioned over these comments, Belsham initially denied all of the allegations related to his comments, but when told that a recording was in the possession of New Matilda he softened his tone and elaborated a little on his recollections.
““My recollection of those conversations, which were private professional conversations, were that I was concerned about Nick’s capacity to keep reporting, both from a personal point of view and a professional point of view, to keep on reporting on this material, and on this issue, and that there were obligations underneath the ABC editorial policies to make sure that all sides of the argument were covered.
“I also felt that there [was a need for] greater scrutiny of the Labor Plan, which I felt that we needed to cover in the interests of balance and accuracy.”
Much of the push back against Ross’s claims relates to this fact – that his articles are inherently unfair and biased towards the Coalitions’ plans. But in the meeting, Ross allegedly points to a long article he published that ripped apart Labor’s handling of the NBN. In many cases, the ABC’s concerns seem to be that Ross is refusing to adhere to their strict interpretation of fair coverage – that each side should get an appropriate amount of air and a similar level of scrutiny.
This is again reflected in the ABC’s response to New Matilda’s revelations, which are similar to comments provided to The Australian and Delimiter last week, although a little more belligerent:
The ABC finds it unethical and reprehensible in the extreme that New Matilda expects a response to partial excerpts of secretly recorded conversations without the opportunity to hear and understand the full context of what was said, despite our repeated requests. These things can and will be interpreted to suit people’s agenda.
The personal counselling given to Mr Ross by his manager was extensive and delivered at length over a number of conversations. At times, those exchanges used unguarded and informal language, as is commonplace in private conversations that are intended to air issues fully, frankly, robustly and in confidence. It would be a shame if all such conversations had to be conducted as if they were on the record interviews. Nevertheless, the thrust of the sentiments expressed to Mr Ross in all of the discussions held with him were consistently that, as with all other topics, coverage of the NBN issue required adherence to the ABC charter and editorial policies, which require appropriately reflecting all major points of view.
To put the taped conversation into context: It followed Mr Ross as ABC Technology Editor publishing an almost 11,000 word article severely criticising the then Opposition’s policy on the NBN. To require him to next look at the current policy of the then Government in power is hardly unreasonable. In fact, it was the editorially responsible thing to do.
As previously stated, the notion that Nick Ross has ever been “gagged” by anyone at the ABC is nonsense. The ABC does not “gag” the coverage of any issues or topics of public importance. As our record makes clear, the ABC covers all issues of public importance thoroughly and independently. The only “restrictions” on the issues the ABC covers and the way we cover them are our Editorial Policies, which set standards for things such as accuracy, impartiality and fair dealing. All of our journalism is required to adhere to these standards at all times.
The ABC has a point, but its strategy here is risky. There is a distinct difference between a senior management figure claiming that “you need to write an insurance policy” in response to criticism of opposition policy, and “casual and informal language”. Additionally, the ABC didn’t seem too upset with the breakdown of Labor’s policy and failings that was published the previous year, although it was just as one sided. That said, Ross’s pieces are heavily interlaced with opinion and this can be difficult when attempting to abide by polices at a news organisation that adheres to strict fact-based reporting principles.
I think in the long term, the ABC will have to front up and detail what actually happened here. Simply writing this off at a disgruntled ex-employee who didn’t listen to direction is not going to play when you have department directors on tape directing their employees to write pieces in order to cover their backs. According to New Matilda, a transcript of the meeting is currently being prepared and it is likely to be published by Sunday.
I have attempted to be fairly neutral on this issue since it broke last week, but the revelations that broke today are extraordinary in their scope, and even more so in the reaction of the ABC to it. It is fairly clear by now that the Coalition has been awful to the ABC since it took power – breaking election promises by cutting funding and pushing both public and private political interference in its processes and how and what it reports and produces. So it’s with little surprise that a manager is heard begging a staff member to level bias by producing pointless fluff pieces on a policy that has been panned across the media and tech community.
I fundamentally disagree that technology reporting is the same as reporting on social issues or current affairs. In many cases, a technical plan is either good or bad. It's not generally subjective. There is certainly a best case scenario with the NBN and it’s been proven time and time again. Labor’s NBN was the subject of extraordinary amounts of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) and mis-reporting for years up until it lost the 2013 election, with the Coalition keeping much of the detail of its plan vague until the lead up to election day itself.
In the end, this comes down to ideology. The MTM (Multi Technology Mix) was never going to be cheaper or faster; Ross knew this. Many technology outlets that weren’t required to pat the Coalition on the back noted this. The plan relied heavily on the idea that the existing technology did not require much to bring it up to spec, which, again, was called on and has turned out to be a furphy. Most of the blowouts have been due to suspected copper remediation costs, higher costs for nodes and more upgrades to the HFC network.
Pretending it didn’t, humouring the Coalition in terms of being “fair” rather than breaking down the flaws in their technical argument was doing the public a disservice. Yes, there were problems with Labor’s plan. They were noted and covered by many journalists including Ross. But they paled in comparison to the mess that is the MTM. Almost every promise – from the speeds to the time it would be completed to the cost – have all been broken. Imagine if the public at large knew all this before the 2013 election. The ABC had a duty to cut through the bullshit, like it has done on so many other subjects, from Domestic Violence to Problem Gambling.
In that case, it has failed.