By Barry Tucker 8 March, 2013
Federal Communications Minister Senator Stephen Conroy has fired a warning shot across the bows of the ABC.
He was reacting to reports that another ABC journalist has been “disciplined” for a breach of editorial guidelines.
Senator Conroy was commenting on a story in the Media section of today’s The Australian by general reporter James Madden. The story said ABC technology journalist Nick Ross “has been disciplined by the broadcaster’s management over concerns that his online posts about the National Broadband Network [NBN] failed to meet its ‘standards of objective journalism’.
“Nick Ross, who edits a forum on the ABC website that focuses on technology and games issues, has written a series of favourable articles about the NBN recently.” The remainder of the story is behind The Australian’s paywall. The same edition of The Australian carried a story by Kevin Morgan under the headline: ABC’s man leaves objectivity on the cutting-room floor to spruik NBN (this story also behind the paywall).
It’s hypocritical of The Australian to refer to objectivity and factual reporting leading to trust and “spruiking” a particular line, as the “cutting-room floor” story does. I’ve checked the recent headlines on Mr Ross’s tech and gaming site. Not all of his articles are favourable towards the NBN.
At this point readers need to know that Mr Ross has been engaged in a battle of words with Mr Morgan (a telecoms consultant who once worked with former federal Labor leader Kim Beazley on telecom reform). The Australian is opposed to Labor’s expensive NBN project and favours the Opposition’s cheaper plan (championed by shadow minister Malcolm Turnbull) involving a mix of technologies. Which is more appropriate for Australia and whether the Opposition’s alternative will be adequate, flood-proof and upgradeable has been the subject of a lengthy and complicated debate. Labor’s fibre to the home plan (supplanted by satellite or radio where appropriate) represents a threat to Rupert Murdoch’s pay TV business model, especially in the area of movie delivery. Mr Murdoch’s News Limited publishes The Australian.
Sen Conroy was interviewed on the ABC’s Melbourne radio station 774 this morning by Jon Faine. Mr Faine was recently reprimanded by the ABC for two back-to-back interviews, which complaints management said were aggressive and not impartial. That decision attracted widespread criticism, and not all of it from the Left. During his interview with two journalists, Mr Faine pressed hard for factual evidence to support their allegations that the Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, had knowingly assisted in the perpetration of a fraud while working as a solicitor for Slater & Gordon 20 years ago — the matter known as the AWU slush fund affair. You can read about that on this site or on Australians for Honest Politics, and other places.
During this morning’s radio interview Senator Conroy interrupted his reply to a question about the NBN to say the following:
“I did want to raise one issue, Jon, which is starting to concern me, and I know a number of listeners, particularly to the ABC – there now seems to be a policy of trying to intimidate ABC personnel. Malcolm Turnbull is constantly attacking and trying to bully some of your journalists. And today I read in The Australian, and I know you shouldn’t always believe everything you read in The Australian, but a very disturbing thing where another journalist on the ABC staff has been internally disciplined because they’re not prepared to just accept every policy pronouncement, or claim that’s made publicly.
“Now this cannot go on. These internal procedures of the ABC have to be more open and more transparent. Journalists cannot work on a basis that they’re going to be bullied and intimidated, and have complaints lodged against them in a process that is not transparent and open. This is the second …” Mr Faine interrupted Senator Conroy at this point to give listeners the background to the latest complaint.
A few minutes later, after Senator Conroy said Mr Ross did not always agree with him, there was this exchange:
Mr Faine: Well you’re the Minister for the ABC, if you think the process is not transparent and unfair, why don’t you do something about it?
Senator Conroy: Well I don’t run the ABC, it’s got a board, it’s got an independent charter, and it’s got a managing director. But I think it’s time to call out, where you’ve got journalists inside the ABC [who] are being disciplined in a process that does not – does not remotely give fair justice to the journalists involved. This is just an outrageous process.”
In one of a series of Tweets on his ABC Tech & Games account @ABCtech Mr Ross said he had not been disciplined.
The Australian’s story by James Madden quoted an ABC official as saying: Mr Ross had “been reminded of the need to ensure that his work in this area is in keeping with ABC policies”.
The spokesperson didn’t make it clear if Mr Ross was told not to post any more blogs about the NBN.
ABC editorial policies and guidelines also cover stories its employees write on personal blogs and Twitter accounts. Either these guidelines are not clear, or not well written or I am stupid because I find them convoluted and hard to follow. If candidates for employment are not made aware of these rules and conditions before they sign on, the legal standing of the rules would be dubious.
See the recent ABC Media Watch story: “Is media bias in the ears of the listener?” in the ABC menu on this website for an example of what I mean. I can’t follow the thread of presenter Jonathan Holmes’ reasoning and his interpretation of what the rules mean.
Australians for Honest Politics (operated by investigative journalist Margo Kingston) has a comprehensive report on the affair, including a “storified” Twitter exchange, a transcript of the Faine/Conroy interview and an audio of that interview.