Fenced In

old rusty barbed wire with hand on the dark background

“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Ross had written a highly critical, as yet unpublished, report on the Coalition’s “cheaper” broadband plan, which scaled back Labor’s “fibre-to-the-home” rollout in favour of a “fibre-to-the-node” (FTN) network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?

(See also: “Battered Broadcaster’s Bolt Delusion” – Jeff Sparrow, Eureka Street)

 

 

 

 

 

 

24 thoughts on “Fenced In

  1. What I have observed is the insidious way the ABC has gone about this. The public have submitted thousands of questions to Q&A and none have come on the show. Van Badum tried to bring up a question to Turnbull on Q&A and was shut down. There has been nearly no reporting in MSM except raves for Magical Mal.

  2. “As an “insurance policy”, he asks Ross to find fault with the Labor plan.”

    First, a disclaimer – In general, I think that the ABC has shown an editorial policy of going soft on the Liberals’ broadband policy. It didn’t receive sufficiently serious comparisons of the pros and cons on a sufficiently broad spectrum of news and current affairs platforms, including the noted absence of it from Q&A debates.

    That said, this piece raises a deeper issue about specialist reporting and balance. My take on the transcript was that the ABC wanted Ross to critically examine the NBN policy as well as the MTM policy. Their problem was that he was applying a laser-like focus on MTM, but was appearing to be an apologist for any weaknesses with NBN.

    False balance would be for the ABC to lay out the respective talking points and say jobs done. But isn’t Belsham asking for real balance, by critically examining both plans, warts and all? Once that is done in a public way, it is more legitimate for a specialist reporting to present an opinion that, on balance, one policy is superior to another. But to relentlessly attack one policy and treat the superiority of the other as a given seems to me to be no kind of balance, false or otherwise.

    “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?”

    I don’t think this is the comparator. The comparator is SMH asking Gittens to investigate any problems that have emerged in the operation of the carbon price. This might be in terms of effectiveness, efficiency, scale, scope, etc. And to do this in a non-political way, rather than just reporting talking points.

    • IIRC Ross had already done a long and detailed comparison of the NBN and the MTM (as you dub them) and found the NBN superior on almost every measure. If we accept your positioning of Belsham’s request, he was not in fact suggesting Ross do a piece pandering to the Coalition line (despite words that strongly suggest that), but rather suggesting that Ross do some analysis that Ross had already done (which would strongly suggest an editorial failure on Belsham’s part).

      “But to relentlessly attack one policy and treat the superiority of the other as a given seems to me to be no kind of balance, false or otherwise.”

      This is a straightforward call for false balance in cases where one policy quite clearly is superior – as Ross found to at least his own satisfaction by doing his detailed comparative analysis (and as most IT experts found to their own satisfaction).

  3. Thank you for this article. It outlines very clearly and succinctly the dichotomy trap that the ABC has fallen into between reporting factually and politically.

  4. I read a few of his pieces and, as someone with considerable IT expertise, thought he was on the money. Then he stopped writing anything. Now we have an explanation for that.

    • You sure do and note except the unwarranted but usual attack by DT the main MSM including to my surprise the Guardian stay silent. Why?

  5. Excellent analysis. Highlights the false balance pursued recently by the ABC, with ritual recitation of rival talking points and afraid to upset the government unless events make that unavoidable. The ABC has already become reduced as an independent source of news and current affairs.

  6. Very thought provoking. In essence the argument that is made is that as long as the ABC is anti Liberal/National Party it shows “balance”. And the piece also confuses “ABC reporter” with “ABC opinion maker”.

    • Actually, that’s exactly what the article doesn’t argue, nor does it confuse those categories. You should possibly try to read for meaning.

      Nick Ross is a technical journalist, and was writing about technical matters. He was not expressing an opinion, as his articles were entirely factual.

  7. Excellent piece Mr D.

    A quibble.
    [“Fairfax economics editor Ross Gittins was a strong critic of Tony Abbott’s policy on climate change, ..”]
    I can’t agree.
    Perhaps if the line read – “Fairfax economics editor Ross Gittins was a strong critic of Tony Abbott’s policy on climate change … after the election when Gittin’s mea culpa came too late and we were stuck with Abbott..”

    Or if you had quoted the last bit by Gittens:
    “Did I ever doubt that climate change represented by far the greatest threat to Australia’s future economic prosperity? Never.
    Should I have said this more often, rather than chasing a thousand economic will-o’-the-wisps?
    Yes.”

    I took Gittens’ apology’ as too little too late which does not excuse his previous silence.
    Same for Delimiter’s almost identical apology, again after the election, for trusting Mal and the COALition on the NBN.

  8. Pingback: Nick Ross, Bruce Belsham, The ABC, And False Balance: The Story So Far - New Matilda

  9. Like so many stories on the Ross affair, you assume Ross is:
    * a technology expert
    * a rigorous journalist

    In reality, he’s neither. His supposedly marvellous features on the NBN collect material he agrees with. They do not set out to report debate. They set out to collect facts Ross thinks the public needs to know. They make no attempt at balance, or even at considering opinions or situations that don’t support the premise of his articles. So vendors’ assertions about their technologies are cited with a link and left to speak for themselves, even though they are sometimes little more than web pages hailing the virtues of a commercial product.

    He also gets lots and lots of things wrong, such as his insistence that copper is simply not fit for purpose. He omits discussion of the role of downstream telcos and internet infrastructure and their impact on speed. He refuses to consider that advances in technology could make copper viable for longer. Or that work is already under way on new compression technologies that will make it possible to send UHD video over lesser connections than is required today. Or that the likes of Netflix can deliver HD video at less than four megabits per second, quite comfortably over even today’s broadband.

    So much for Ross’ rigour. And so much for his expertise.

    And I defy anyone who reads his epics to consider them good journalism. They’re too long, lack structure and don’t engage readers.

    Which doesn’t mean the ABC emerges unscathed. In the first instance, the ABC permitted publication of poor journalism. Then it lost control of Ross, who slunk off and worked from home for years while also spending time on personal projects.

    Little evidence of good management there.

    Lastly, what credibility to attach to someone who makes secret recordings and then publishes them. And who claims he was gagged without furnishing evidence?

    • Thanks for the comment, Eric. A few points in reply:

      Firstly, I never passed judgement on the merits of Ross’ writing. He may well be rambling and unfocused, as you say. My issue was with the ABC’s apparent attempt to turn coverage of a complex and opaque issue of some public interest into the recitation of rival talking points from the two major political parties.

      Secondly, you indicate that he was reflecting a minority few. But plenty of other independent experts issued warnings about the inadequacy of the Coalition’s scaled down broadband plan. While I’m not remotely qualified technically to judge who is right, I can at least see this debate is wider than the he said-she said approach of the ABC.

      Thirdly, you miss the point I made about News Corp’s vested commercial interest in pushing the Turnbull plan and the danger of a dominant media company reporting on an area of public policy (involving the expenditure of significant public monies) without any substantial critical reporting.

      Finally, the issue here isn’t about Ross or the technical details of how viable copper is a technology for a broadband era. It’s about the adequacy of public debate and scrutiny of a significant national infrastructure project and the sensitivity of the national broadcaster to political and commercial pressure.

      • Jim, yes, lots of others have warned about the possible poor outcomes of building the NBN with mixed media. But few, including Ross, have also looked at the upsides of emerging technologies. Surely the ABC and wider media should explore that side of the debate? Instead we have a pathetic copper vs. fibre debate that ignores about a zillion important nuances. Anyone who dares to question the commercial or technological superiority of fibre is rounded on as a luddite.

        Secondly. I agree that the ABC should go beyond talking points when examining the NBN. Let’s please remember that it has, on Background Briefing and elsewhere. I’m far from convinced that Ross went too far beyond finding sources that support his arguments.

        Your News Ltd criticisms seem to me to be double jeopardy because you argue that if News criticises the NBN in any way, it can only be to support its own interests! I hate the Romans – oops, News Ltd – as much as anyone. But to suggest that it is using its reach to beat up the NBN so it can stage a Canute-like defiance of the digital tide is just not possible to support. Have you seen how Foxtel has changed since Netflix arrived? How does it meet News’ goals to have inferior broadband that would hurt its free news.com.au property? Or its Fox Sports property?

        Lastly, I agree: more scrutiny of the NBN is warranted. To do it, media will need people with considerable expertise and skill. Nick Ross was and is not that person.

        • Thanks, Eric. I think we agree on a few things. You’re coming at from the broadband industry view. I’m questioning the media’s capacity to adequately and authoritatively address complex on a range of fronts (climate change, communications technology, financial ‘innovation’, micro-economic and labour market ‘reform’) without falling into the bland and passive recycling of rehearsed talking points from vested interests.

          I remain disturbed at the attitude taken by Belsham in that transcript in that he appeared to be suggesting that adequate coverage amounted to bagging both sides in equal measure. That isn’t a reflection on him personally, but on the paranoia at the ABC and its lack of resources to tackle these issues.

          As to News Corp, I don’t think you need to be a conspiracy theorist to see it has form in using its editorial pages to push the company’s commercial interests. See the coordinated attacks on the BBC in the UK.

          Let’s agree that better media reporting of all things technology is a good thing, particularly in terms of separating out the daily political back-and-forth from industry-informed analysis.

    • Hmmm … where to start?

      As someone with some technical knowledge in this field, I know enough to defer to actual experts (like, eg, Paul Budde), who have mostly been pretty scathing about the Turnbull Fraudband. (Yes, I’m using loaded terms. I’m angry.)

      Sure, we can squeeze a few more years out of copper, but there are hard limits to copper’s capability, as Claude Shannon demonstrated many years ago. Also it deteriorates, particularly when it’s in pits and conduits that are full of water. Its replacement cost is roughly the same as the cost of replacing it with fibre.

      Having read some of Ross’ pieces, I think he wrote reasonably clearly, as well as accurately, about the issues with the NBN. You may be coming at this from a diffent ideological perspective to mine, because your technical perspective is nonsensical.

  10. Nonsensical? Cable labs just signed off DOCSIS 3.1 modems at 1Gbps. With 10Gbps to come. Funny how the defence of FTTP always ignores HFC.

    XG.fast is doing 1Gbps in the labs, over 100m copper runs. By the time it is a product, it will do better.

    And let’s knock off this “all copper needs to be replaced” shibboleth now, shall we? It just doesn’t. Mine is a steady 15Mbps over a 800m run. In a federation-era suburb with PMG markings on the pits. That’s the PostMaster General, in case you’re wondering, which ran telecoms in Australia until 1975 before Telstra (Telecom Australia) was spun out. So that’s copper at least 40 years old. Probably older: the copper passed through a bakelite box full of conductive grease under my house when I moved in.

    Work on HEVC and competing compression is advancing. HEVC is designed for 8k video with the aim of getting compression below current levels. TLDR: more pixels, less bandwidth. It’s coming. Which will mean slower growth in requirement for fat connections.

    Which application exactly do you have at home that needs more than 1Gbps once HEVC comes along?

    And what practical difference will the extra 100m of fibre from the node to the premises matter, given that there will still be hops, content delivery networks and stalled servers galore before a server actually starts to send you some content?

    None of this stuff made Ross’ reporting. Which IMHO made calls for balance and reporting both sides of the story pretty damn reasonable. Because if the ABC kept going with Ross’ stuff, it would look not just biased but foolishly biased.

    • I’m sure you can get 1 Gbps over 100m of copper, under laboratory conditions, with a single user. What about when you’re trying to multiplex 50 users over the same cable run, only it’s 5 km long? (I’m aware of what PMG means, btw – I used to work for him nearly 50 years ago.)

      Also, compression algorithms will only get you so far. As with the problems with signal-to-noise ratio I implied with my reference to Shannon, there are hard limits to how much better they’ll get. And frankly, limiting the potential usage of a decent broadband network to 8k video completely misses the point.

  11. You’re missing the point again David. There are alternative carriage media and technologies out there. Ross didn’t make meaningful attempt to consider them. Or to consider transitions from one to another over timr. His managers, who weren’t subject matter experts, asked for balance. And in so doing explained why balance is important for audiences AND the ABC.

    Speaking of balance, you’re still dodging on HFC.

    • I’m not dodging anything, or missing any points. I just don’t see the point of building a hybrid network when we have (or had) a better option.

      Yes, there are alternative carriage media and technologies. None of them are nearly as good as optical fibre, so why would Ross consider them?

      Ignoring the aesthetics of it and merely considering the cost, you would have us pay for the installation and ongoing costs (power, maintenance, etc) of bar fridge sized boxes on every street corner so we can have the all joys of a hybrid network. I have seen some (not all) analyses which claim that this would be not only inferior but, especially in the long term, more expensive than fibre to the premises.

  12. And there we have it: the argument that there is no need to consider anything other than FTTP.

    Which gets to the crux of the matter, really. You, and Ross, think the debate is over. That any decision other than Fibre is rank idiocy. Not worth discussion. Trust us on this. We’re techies. We’ve read stuff.

    But around the world we can see that the debate is not over. Carriers and communities are building networks on technologies other than FTTP. Network equipment builders see demand for new carriage technologies over existing network plant.

    So why should Ross have considered them?

    Because that’s what journalists do. Consider as many angles as they can find.

    Ross’ articles did not investigate the range of broadband technologies available, their evolution and their applicability to different applications or the aims of the NBN. He appears not to have sought contrarian voices. He presented the issue as settled when it is not. And he made a lot of errors.

    His managers appear to have made a terrible hash of explaining how to balance his work. But make no mistake, his work needed balancing.

  13. The detail about the benefits and drawbacks of each system may be important, but the direction from an excecutive is critical to the story. Was Belsham self editing or were there instructions from above?

    The former head of Germany’s ZDF recently admitted on air that “…the topics about which are reported are laid down by the government.”
    While these orders are sent to media companies from unspecified places in the government, they are communicated to individual journalists by news executives using a new-speak jargon. Dr. Herles explains that while “there are, in fact, instructions from above”, when the editor in chief of ZDF communicated these instructions to his juniors he would merely say reporting should be framed in a way that “serves Europe and the public good”.
    http://www.breitbart.com/london/2016/02/02/top-german-journalist-admits-live-on-air-national-news-agenda-set-by-government/

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