Last Thursday during Question Time, Jason Clare (@JasonClareMP), Shadow Minister for Communications, asked Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm), about his role in influencing editorial decisions the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) made in relation to its National Broadband Network (NBN) coverage.
On January 21, 2016 New Matilda published explosive details of a secretly recorded private conversation between Nick Ross (@NickRossTech), the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) former Games and Technology Editor, and Bruce Belsham, the Head of ABC’s Current Affairs division. They later published the full transcript.
Brendan O’Connor (@BOConnorMP), Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations was ejected from Parliament under 94 (a) for interjecting during Turnbull’s first answer (from Hansard):
You bullied them. You’re a bully.
Christopher Pyne (@cpyne), Leader of the House and Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science attempted to have the first question question shut down, saying (from Hansard):
Mr Speaker, further on the point of order, there has been absolutely no suggestion whatsoever that any actions have been taken by the Prime Minister either as Prime Minister or as Minister for Communications.
However, in a startling admission during his answer, Turnbull said (from Hansard):
In any of my discussions with the chief executive I have said exactly the same things privately as I have said publicly—
Clearly actions had been taken: it can safely be assumed Turnbull was referring to Mark Scott (@mscott), managing director ABC.
Turnbull publicly attacked Ross.
In Turnbull’s first answer to Clare, he said he’d raised “exactly the same things” privately (with Scott) and publicly.
Turnbull (from Hansard):
I am not about to run a commentary on particular articles on the ABC…. …. So, yes, I certainly did complain and felt that their coverage could have been more comprehensive, as I described. I think it could have done a better job at informing the Australian people about the technology choices. But, as for the rights and wrongs of Nick Ross, who I think is the journalist the honourable member mentioned, or indeed, Emma Alberici, those are matters between the ABC management and the journalists in question. They are matters for them to resolve through the normal industrial processes.
Turnbull’s second answer seems at odds with his first, where he appears to admit he raised Ross’ NBN reporting with Scott.
On November 19, 2014 The Australian reported Turnbull as saying:
Echoing comments made in an interview with The Australian earlier this year, Mr Turnbull again urged board members to resign if they did not want to take responsibility for ensuring impartiality at the ABC.
The ABC Board is responsible for ensuring “news and information is accurate and impartial”, also for ensuring independence.
ABC editorial policies state: “that editorial decisions are not improperly influenced by political” interests.
Turnbull, 19 November, 2014 source:
Equally, I propose to recommend to the board that the position of editor-in-chief no longer be combined with that of the managing director. It creates the impression that the managing director is directly in charge of ABC news and current affairs, which he is not.
Turnbull (from Hansard):
The honourable member’s attempt to suggest that somehow there is something untoward in complaining about coverage on the ABC does him a disservice.
There are clear internal and external processes for making complaints to or about the ABC, including editorial content: these do not include privileged private discussions with the managing director.
The ABC Board is responsible for the independence of our public broadcaster, it is their role to ensure the internal processes that deliver independence are functioning correctly, not intervene at the request of politicians or anyone else: Turnbull’s statement reported 19 November, 2014 indicates he is aware of this.
It is inappropriate any politician would seek such a conversation with a member of the ABC Board, more so when they (potentially) wield such power over budgets: they should use the established complaints processes like everyone else.
A member of the ABC Board entertaining a conversation with a politician, such as Turnbull admits occurred, is dubious at best when held against the Board’s duties under the ABC Act.
From the transcript of the secretly recorded meeting between Ross and Belsham:
Belsham: I can’t let you publish something about the copper and then about all the terrific benefits of [INDECIPHERABLE] that’s not going to happen with the Coalition, because basically, the world, the Turnbull camp and my superiors are going to come down on me like a tonne of bricks.
Belsham: Real politik, I’m not talking morality here, I’m talking about real politik.
Turnbull’s message filtered down from Scott, through management, eventually determining what journalists and their editors could and could not publish: that is demonstrably the case in this instance, it’s clearly a breach of ABC Editorial Policies and the Board failing to ensure independence as the ABC Act dictates they must.
Turnbull (from Hansard):
the ABC failed in its coverage of the issue because it failed to use its rather extensive international resources to at least go and interview people at British Telecom or Deutsche Telekom or Swisscom and test whether the arguments I was putting as the shadow minister for communications were correct.
No Fibs Asked Nick Ross: Did you examine British Telecom, Deutsche Telekom or Swisscom experience (either via interviews or publicly available information) with fibre to the node (FttN) technology?
Yeah, this was what he [Turnbull] was saying back in 2012. We covered international FttN to bits. Turnbull however literally complained that we didn’t “phone” people. As we said consistently, FttN potential is not in dispute… But the geography of Australia and state of our copper massively is. But no-one else was fact checking him and holding him to account. The claim is as daft now as it was then.
Is Turnbull suggesting ABC foreign correspondents interrogate the efficacy of FttN for Australian conditions based on the experience of an entirely different set of circumstances elsewhere, without the technical expertise required to do so?
No Fibs Asked Nick Ross: Did your department at the ABC have a budget that would allow such travel?
You don’t need to travel to ask about it. The entire issue isn’t what they’re doing but why Australia is very different.
Nick Ross added:
It’s another SPECIOUS argument from Turnbull.
14 Jun 2012: NBN stats: Australia’s broadband future and why the Coalition’s alternative ‘won’t work’
26 Jul 2012: Could FTTN replace the NBN?
23 Aug 2012: Should the NBN follow the AT&T direction?
24 Aug 2012: Why BT’s NBN equivalent in the UK is not a good example for Australia
16 Nov 2012: Huge doubts cast over Coalition’s ‘cheaper’ NBN alternative
Updated 27 Nov 2012 (First posted 23 Nov 2012): Australia’s copper network is ‘Rooted’
27 Nov 2012: Nope, copper network still rooted (and maybe worse than first thought)
Updated 14 Feb 2013 (First posted 13 Feb 2013): Why the Coalition’s NBN alternative will likely cause a broadband monopoly
20 Feb 2013: NBN: Following UK model would take 8 years
21 Feb 2013: The vast differences between the NBN and the Coalition’s alternative
26 Mar 2013: 21 billion dollars: The cost of upgrading the Coalition’s NBN alternative to FTTP
Ross and the ABC comprehensively covered the Coalition alternative NBN and FttN, Turnbull didn’t like the coverage, it’s as simple as that.
Turnbull’s answers in Question Time last week pose more questions, including for the ABC Board and Scott.
Clare should be serving up a big helping of Malcolm waffle during Question Time next week, tune in and bring your own maple syrup.
Related story on NoFibs: Aunty through @TurnbullMalcolm’s independent looking glass of #auspol’s realpolitik