“Our job is not to step in, our job is just to reflect, it’s just to report on what happens.”
That’s a quote from the ABC’s head of current affairs, Bruce Belsham, in the transcript published by New Matilda of his conversation in 2013 with the public broadcaster’s then technology editor Nick Ross about the National Broadband Network.
The conversation reveals an editor under intense pressure from his board over Ross’ specialist and opinionated reporting of the respective merits of the rival broadband proposals of the major parties ahead of the 2013 election
Ross had written a highly critical, as yet unpublished, report on the Coalition’s “cheaper” broadband plan, which scaled back Labor’s “fibre-to-the-home” rollout in favour of a “fibre-to-the-node” (FTN) network that would depend on rapidly ageing copper phone lines.
Belsham, a respected current affairs journalist, explains in the transcript of the conversation that he was under internal and external pressure over Ross’ view that Labor’s NBN plan was superior. As an “insurance policy”, he asks Ross to find fault with the Labor plan.
The issue was red-hot given the interest Rupert Murdoch’s 50 per cent-owned Foxtel was showing in the NBN outcome. There was a view, denied by then Opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull, that the Coalition plan was designed to protect Foxtel’s pay TV monopoly. (That Turnbull and Abbott later launched their policy at Foxtel’s headquarters rather blunted Turnbull’s denial.)
The ABC’s attempt to dilute Nick Ross’ critique of the FTN plan has sparked debate on social media. In one corner are those, like former Media Watch host Jonathan Holmes, who believe Ross crossed the line from straight reporting as a specialist roundsman into outright advocacy. In the other are those like the New Matilda team, who see this as a classic case of “false balance” by the public broadcaster, turning an important public issue into a ritual recitation of rival talking points.
My own opinion is that if the Holmes view is right, why does the ABC bother with “current affairs”? If the role of a highly specialist expert like Nick Ross is to do no more than parrot the established lines of the rival parties and treat a technology story as just another political one, why not leave it to the press gallery? How is it “political advocacy” to conclude as a subject matter expert that one policy position is superior to another?
Think about it this way. Fairfax economics editor Ross Gittins was a strong critic of Tony Abbott’s policy on climate change, which swapped an effective market-based mechanism for a taxpayer subsidy to polluters. What if the SMH’s editor in chief had taken Gittins aside during the election campaign and suggested he run a column praising the benefits of Abbott’s “direct action” plan as an insurance policy for Fairfax?
How do you think Ross Gittins would respond? He undoubtedly would say he was paid to look at the merits of the issues in themselves irrespective of the political noise around them, that he was paid as a highly specialist contributor and as someone who stood apart from the daily to-and-fro. Isn’t that why we have specialist journalists? It definitely supports the case for reporting economics from outside the Canberra hothouse.
Of course, the critics of Nick Ross will say that the ABC, as a publicly funded broadcaster, is different in that it is a federal agency operating under a legislated charter. Malcolm Turnbull has previously alluded to these particular obligations, saying the ABC and SBS must show even higher standards of integrity and balance than that expected of commercial media.
My view is there is no difference. Journalists have particular responsibilities to inform the public accurately, regardless of whom they work for. And a public broadcaster, by definition, owes its greatest allegiance to the public, not to the temporary political paymasters who distribute public monies.
For Belsham, the arguments around the broadband network were just another front in the red team vs blue team tennis match that he and his current affairs division was expected to umpire. Informing the public was almost less important than passively reporting “what happens” and keeping his paymasters off his back. For Ross, the politics was secondary to the policy. Look at this section of the transcript:
Belsham: “You can write that. You can write their argument and you can report that accurately. But you don’t have to be a cheerleader for it, you can just lay it out. I mean if I was faced with this task, I’d say, ‘OK why are we not going to get an NBN? Why are we not going to get fibre to the home?’”
Ross: “That’s a political (story) rather than technology, though.”
Belsham: “It’s all political.”
Ross: “But I don’t do politics though, this is the thing.”
You see how this works? The policy is so complicated, it’s easier for the ABC to just report the politics. It’s why every panel show on man-made climate change has a denialist on board despite 99% of scientific opinion agreeing there is no dispute it is happening. It’s why the ABC blandly reported the “debt disaster” rhetoric of the Coalition ahead of the last election despite just about every independent expert describing it as a beat-up.
The implication is that there are only two narratives to every story – one promulgated by the Coalition and one by Labor. The framing is taken as a given, leaving the ABC to simply play traffic cop while ensuring each side has their say. The idea of actually reporting the truth and working back from there doesn’t appear to come into it.
The criticism of Ross by the likes of Jonathan Holmes is that his work was too opinionated. But this wasn’t a man just sounding off from the top of his head. This wasn’t a press gallery drone spending his days sticking microphones up people’s noses and rewriting press releases. This was an expert commentator with impeccable sources and technical credentials. Reinforcing that is the fact that his warnings have proved uncannily accurate.
So the question remains: Why bother employing subject matter experts (as opposed to straight news reporters) if you are not going to allow them to provide the public with the benefit of their expertise? Why limit the reporting of every contentious issue to the boundaries dictated by the major parties? Why place ingratiating oneself with your political masters ahead of informing the public whom you ultimately serve?
It is increasingly evident that being a constant pawn in the News Corp-orchestrated (and commercially motivated) culture wars has made the ABC overly defensive, risk-averse and prone to putting editorial judgment second to what Belsham pointedly called “realpolitik”.
The sad irony is the ABC’s conflict-avoidance and dancing around the sensitivities of the government of the day (of whatever stripe) will only serve to cripple it as an independent source of news and current affairs. If a public broadcaster sees its role as just to “report what happens”, it won’t survive – because there are hundreds of places to go to pick up the he said-she said basic facts on any story. What’s in short supply is context and meaning and views coming from beyond the Canberra bubble.
To quote Mark Scott, is the ABC a state broadcaster or a public one?