Wayne Jansson

Wayne Jansson

Chief reporter & photographer at No Fibs
Wayne Jansson is an Australian citizen journalist and photographer. He covered the seat of Indi during the 2013 federal election and since has covered the growth of the community independent movement.
Wayne Jansson
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

Secret recording reveals political interference and self-censorship in ABC’s NBN coverage. Photo: Wayne Jansson

Last week, New Matilda published explosive details of a secretly recorded private conversation between Nick Ross, 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.

The recording made by Ross (@NickRossTech), reveals political pressure being exerted over editorial decisions regarding his coverage of the National Broadband Network (NBN), specifically his pieces critical of the Coalition alternative.

The recorded meeting took place On May 28, 2013 and reveals Belsham (@BBelsham) was fearful of pressure from Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm), the then Shadow Communications Minister and current Prime Minister, and/or someone from his office, as well as from senior management.

From the transcript:

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 and Ross have publicly clashed over the Coalitions version of the NBN, as far back as July, 2012. It is not uncommon for journalists and politicians to clash.


A story was required on Labors NBN plan, something “up for debate”, so Ross could continue reporting on the NBN.

From the transcript:

Belsham: Just in terms about the latest piece, I don’t have anything per se in terms of objections to the piece, but I, what I’m getting concerned about and I’m also getting a bit of kind of commentary about, is just this kind of relentless drip, one after the other, this is what we’re publishing, this is the policy, this is how it works, etcetera etcetera etcetera. And I think that that’s going to, you know, if we publish another one at this point, it’s going to be really kind of difficult for you. What I would suggest, to give yourself a bit of capacity to be able to do a few more of these, is to, to just turn the vision around a bit and just find some element of the, you know, of the Labor plan, of the NBN plan, which is up for debate, because I mean, and purely focus on that.

Ross announced via Twitter he’d left the ABC (@ABCAustralia) on January 14, 2016. The final NBN piece he wrote for the ABC was published in July, 2014.

The ABC told New Matilda via email:

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.

Ross told No Fibs during an interview:

The ABC had a copy of that [the recording], I formally blew the whistle internally. The whistleblowing people Group Audit asked for a copy, they whitewashed it.

The ABC has been in possession of the recording published by New Matilda since around August 2015.

No Fibs has sighted the Public Interest Disclosure Investigation (began 25 June, 2015) Report (dated 30 October, 2015), which dealt with the allegations.

Group Audit investigated two issues:

  1. The ABC News Division has a policy in place since 2013 to only report favourably on the current Government’s/ Coalition’s National Broadband Network (NBN) policy.
  2. Misleading information was provided by the ABC to Senate Estimates Hearings from 2013 to date in relation to the alleged policy above.

The ABC Group Audit did not uphold the allegations. The first issue was framed so the allegation would fail since Ross had infact published negative stories on the Coalition NBN. The second issue then fails by default. Problem solved for the ABC.

However, the recording clearly reveals both Belsham and Ross were under internal and external political pressure regarding Ross’ reports on the Coalition NBN alternative.

Audit and Risk Committee Charter October 2015:

The Board is responsible for the appointment of Committee members and the Chair of the Committee. The Committee will consist of at least three members, with the majority being non-executive Directors drawn from the Board. The Chair of the Committee must be a member of the Board. The Board Chair must not be a member of the Committee.

The Managing Director, Chief Operating Officer and the Head Group Audit will not be members of the Committee, but attend meetings as observers.

One stated objective of the Audit and Risk Committee is to: Provide a forum for communication between the Board, senior management and both the internal and external auditors.

Mark Scott (@mscott) did not reply so we sent the following questions to his Twitter account.

Quentin Dempster (@QuentinDempster), former ABC journalist and public broadcasting advocate, told No Fibs in a statement:

The ABC has a case to answer.  My tweet last week indicates my view that the ABC needs to clear the air through an external procedurally fair inquiry.  There are precedents for this:  The Coleman inquiry (barrister Phillip Coleman appointed by then MD Brian Johns)  into journalist John Millard’s treatment after he had exposed  backdoor sponsorship of ABC infotainment programs in the early 1990s.

In Nick Ross we have a highly qualified but distressed technology writer with a prima facie cause for complaint.

ABC journalists are meant to work collegially with editorial management to produce the best possible fearless  journalism.  Often the production process involves robust conversations about both the facts to be discovered and exposed, advantageous timing to build the audience impact  and handling inevitable complaints.  Often in house lawyers are called in to ensure taxpayers’ money is not put at unacceptable risk if we are treading on powerful toes.  I cannot express an opinion on the Belsham/Ross taped conversation unless all the context is known.  That is why an external inquiry in a procedurally fair process should be conducted.  All the players, Nick Ross, Bruce Belsham, Mark Scott,  the managing director and editor-in-chief, (the 14th floor),  the executives in group audit who reportedly were given the Belsham/Ross tape,  can be questioned about their actions and motivations.  This can only protect the ABC and the integrity of its editorial policies.

This is a complaint about the ABC allegedly trying not to upset Malcolm Turnbull at a time when it was apparent he would soon be the minister in charge of the ABC.    It  allegedly resulted in the ABC’s ‘self-censorship’  of its NBN specialist as the technological merits and deficiencies of the NBN and its roll out were being debated.

Have a look at the recent Robert Redford movie ‘Truth’ in which a senior producer was sacked  by CBS over the exposure of President George W. Bush’s military training record,   and you’ll see a case where politics gazumped journalism.  We must ensure this does not happen at the ABC.

As Quentin Dempster says, there is absolutely self-censorship occurring, but Belsham also states he is fearful of “the Turnbull camp … going to come down on me like a tonne of bricks”. Belsham is a highly experienced operator within the ABC, surely the fear is born from that experience.

The ABC also told New Matilda via email:

…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.

From the transcript:

Ross: I’ve just been looking at it from a scientific point of view, hiding behind facts rather than the politics……
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.

Renai LeMay (@renailemay), editor of Delimiter, said of Ross’ NBN coverage in “The FTTN truth the Coalition does not want known“:

While the rest of the media (including yours truly, on occasion) has been examining the current NBN rollout in obsessive micro-detail, Ross has been deeply investigating whether the Coalition’s alternative fibre to the node model actually reflects good policy — and how it stacks up against the current Labor fibre to the premise model.

Virtually alone, out of all of Australia’s technology journalists, Ross has had the courage and the conviction to seriously and in detail investigate the often dubious claims which the Coalition has made about the potential of fibre to the node technology in the NBN rollout. To do this, he has gone against the grain of the rest of the media, he has butted heads with a politician as well-regarded as Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and he has even gone against the grain of his own media outlet.

Sure, there are doubtless some minor errors in Ross’s articles. They are too lengthy, hard to read and at times he could do more to maintain the perception of journalistic objectivity. As an editor myself, I would suggest that he probably needs more eyes to look at his work before it’s published. But these are minor criticisms and don’t much detract from the titanic accomplishment that Ross delivered last week.

No Fibs technology contributor Kieran Cummings (@sortius), said of Ross’ NBN reporting:

Nick Ross was, to me, incorruptible when it came to the politics of the NBN. He viewed the NBN as a core network designed to deliver, as best it can, equivalent services to most of Australia, something that was the mission of the NBN. Like me, he was incensed by the political angle being imposed on the NBN by one side of politics, and showed exactly why this wasn’t a political debate. To say this is bias would be plain wrong; this is basic reporting on technology.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 (ABC Act) says:

s6 Charter of the Corporation.
(1) (a) to provide within Australia innovative and comprehensive broadcasting services of a high standard…….

(i) broadcasting programs that contribute to a sense of national identity and inform and…

Ross was providing a high standard of painstakingly researched information which was mostly absent in the main stream media, he was informing the Australian public. He was doing exactly what the ABC Charter required, he was doing his job.

No Fibs asked Ross, why he made the recording:

I got told by my boss on March 8, 2013 in a meeting, ABC senior management (he named a couple of people) were expecting the Liberals to win the next election, and they didn’t want to do anything to piss them off, especially Malcolm Turnbull, who would be in charge of the ABC after that. I viewed that as a huge change. I’d been under all kinds of pressure to view the NBN politically, but this was a case of they’re manipulating news to help effect an election outcome. I felt I needed to protect myself so documented everything from that point on.

In allowing politics and political pressure to influence and indeed dictate editorial decisions, the ABC is in clear breach of its Editorial Policies.

1.3 Ensure that editorial decisions are not improperly influenced by political, sectional, commercial or personal interests.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation Act 1983 (ABC Act) says:

s6 Charter of the Corporation.
(2) (a) (iii) the responsibility of the Corporation as the provider of an independent national broadcasting service……

s8 Duties of the Board.
(1) It is the duty of the Board:

(a) to ensure that the functions of the Corporation are performed efficiently and with the maximum benefit to the people of Australia;

(b) to maintain the independence and integrity of the Corporation;

(c) to ensure that the gathering and presentation by the Corporation of news and information is accurate and impartial according to the recognized standards of objective journalism; and

(d) to ensure that the Corporation does not contravene, or fail to comply with:

(i) any of the provisions of this Act or any other Act that are applicable to the Corporation……

The ABC Board have a clear responsibility under the ABC Act to ensure the independence of the ABC. In this instance they have failed miserably. They did not protect their editor and journalist from political pressure and interference.

The ABC Board also has a responsibility to ensure the ABC provides “maximum benefit” to Australians.

Allowing editors and journalists to be leaned on by politics or politicians denies the Australian public vital information often (in this case most certainly) not otherwise available in other main stream media. That much of this occurred during the lead up to an election makes it even worse.

It certainly appears that in the end the ABC stopped their only NBN specialist from reporting on the NBN.

No Fibs: Do you have any regrets about making the recording?

Ross: Probably some, but the simple fact is if it ever came out, and I couldn’t see any way that it wouldn’t, that the ABC was manipulating news, then someone one day would ask me: why didn’t you say anything? That means you’re complicit in a very real conspiracy. I wanted to protect myself. It’s not a position I wanted to be in, but I was put in it by my boss.

Ross expressed concern that Belsham will be the scapegoat.

It’s actually bothered me, my boss is being crucified for this and scapegoated. I’ve work for him for 5 years and consistently the theme I’ve always got is him passing on information from his superiors.

What’s also interesting is I’ve had calls from other ABC employees that are still there, basically saying: go you. It’s a common theme. They’ve all had the same sort of dealings, the pressure to cover certain things or avoid covering them is very real.

I’ve also heard from some people that they’ve been told exactly the same thing and not only that, they’ve got it in writing. But the problem is they can’t come forward because there is absolutely no support network for them.

Australia and the ABC were taken through Turnbull’s NBN looking glass.

Aunty’s NBN coverage is certainly not the first issue to be politically touched up, but we should make sure it’s the last.

There needs to be an independent inquiry into the political manipulation of the ABC’s NBN coverage and an opportunity for other journalists to come forward with similar concerns, without fear from recriminations or career damage.

While the ABC Board is charged with ensuring independence, the Board, senior management, editors, and journalists will always be susceptible to political manipulation because the government pulls the purse strings.

Responsibility for the ABC’s independence must be removed from the ABC Board and given to an independent body, free from the threat of funding cuts to our public broadcaster.

Both The Liberal Party of Australia (@LiberalAus) and The Australian Labor Party (@AustralianLabor) must give the Australian people something we thought we always had, a truly independent ABC.

The New Matilda pieces on this story.