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#estimates - the ABC and the NBN

Estimates & Committees
Scott Ludlam 8 Feb 2016

Senator LUDLAM: That is great. I appreciate that. I think it makes sense to dwell here while we are here. Thank you for your answers thus far, Mr Scott. I am interested to know why you would refer to the initial 21 February article 'The vast differences between the NBN and the Coalition's alternative', the 11,000-word article- I have a copy of it here-that I guess might have started this particular ball rolling, as a treatise. Why would you not just refer to it as an article? 

 

Mr Scott: There are two elements of it that I think are noteworthy, frankly. In my experience at the ABC, I can never recall when we have ever published anything at 11,000 words, at a factor of many times longer than anything else we have ever published. It is unprecedented in its scale.

Senator LUDLAM: Okay, so it was long. 

Mr Scott: Very, very long. In my newspaper publishing experience, I think 5,000 or 8,000 words was the longest we ever published in print. So it is a very long piece. The second thing is that, given the nature of the piece, the fact that it was not upwardly referred and that it was not discussed with any of his line managers-as I understand and as I was told, they did not even know it was coming-again is most unusual and not in keeping with the usual processes that would have been in place around this. Mr Ross-despite his experience and his heartfelt views and the genuineness of his analysis-works in an editorial process, and the editorial process does have in it issues of upward referral and editorial line management. That is why I referred to it in that way.

Senator LUDLAM: You also referred to Mr Ross's article-I think twice thus as far-as heartfelt, as though it is a rather emotional piece of reporting. There are hundreds of references in here and it is actually a remarkably well-referenced and quite factual-indeed forensic-document which others in the tech press, and certainly I as a participant in the public debate, found immensely valuable, and it keeps getting referred to as though it is some sort of vanity posting. 

Mr Scott: I think it is fair to say-and I think he has made no secret of it-that Mr Ross did not always have a happy time at the ABC. I could take a view here that was critical of the way he approached some of these things. Those two matters that I just raised with you, particularly having posted it without the upward referral, are quite a serious matter editorially. But I do not want to have a go at Mr Ross on all of that, and I am saying that I believe he was genuine and serious minded in his approach. The challenge we had was: did his approach lead us to coverage that was compliant with our editorial policies? It is not simply a case of 'on the one hand or on the other hand', and it is not simply a case of false balance. It is around the principal, relevant viewpoints and the range of perspectives around this contentious matter. Whilst there are some who are very supportive of that piece, there are others who are critical of it-

Senator LUDLAM: Such as the opposition communications spokesman. 

Mr Scott: Yes, but others as well. As Media Watch found-and that was Media Watch's perspective-he was an advocate. That is not the role that our journalists are meant to play.

Senator LUDLAM: You have spoken a couple of times about editorial balance. In my reading of the transcript-again, I want to acknowledge that New Matilda and, I think, Crikey are among the only two outlets that have picked this up-Mr Belsham is not, on balance, critiquing Mr Ross. He is saying: 'You need to provide us with some insurance. You need to go out and write a hit piece on Stephen Conroy and the Labor Party NBN model.' That is what I find most dissonant. I am not referring to the vastly different article of February. We are referring to the second article on whether Australia's copper network is fit for purpose. In the transcript that dates back to May 2013, you can see Mr Ross is being schooled by Mr Belsham in an article that will not be published until after the election, after it ceases to be of any value to people who are trying to make judgement calls about the relative merits of one policy or another. Mr Ross is not being told that the article is out of balance. Mr Belsham actually says he likes the latest piece and would like to publish it. Then he advises Mr Ross to go out and write a hit piece on the alternative. That is remarkable. 

Mr Scott: I have heard a lot of colourful language in newsrooms. That is not particularly colourful. I think he is saying that there was clearly, if you had been following it, significant debate around the policies brought forward by both sides. There were issues like the growing debate between the relative costs of the different programs, the delay of the NBN, technical issues around nbn co's delivery speed to homes, the return of public investment, the economic modelling and the absence of an economic benefits strategy around the NBN. These are all very relevant issues. I do not think it was inappropriate for Mr Belsham to encourage Mr Ross to go and interrogate those matters. It goes to completeness of the coverage.

Senator LUDLAM: Mr Ross had written some quite critical stuff in the past about the Labor NBN model. But I do find it extraordinary that he is being schooled about a piece that his editor says he quite likes. Mr Belsham says: We've got to give you some kind of insurance policy ... He says that, otherwise: ... the Turnbull camp and my superiors are going to come down on me like a tonne of bricks ... What the hell has that got to do with editorial balance? 

Mr Scott: I think it is to do with the completeness of the coverage. Mr Belsham thought there were some merits in that piece. But what are the other angles? What are the other perspectives that we need to bring to bear to provide completeness of coverage? I think-

Senator LUDLAM: Insurance implies a political calculation. 

Senator DASTYARI: That is not what he said.

Senator LUDLAM: Insurance implies- 

CHAIR: Senator Dastyari, Senator Ludlum has the call. 

Mr Scott: As I read that piece, I understood exactly what Mr Belsham was saying.

Senator LUDLAM: I think we all understand what he was saying. 

Mr Scott: I think he was saying that the coverage was not complete or comprehensive. But I am not sure that Mr Ross shared that view. Mr Ross thought he had written what needed to be written on the matter. As an editor, I can tell you that we send journalists out to find new and different angles on stories to make sure we tell the full and complete story. Therefore, I do not find it that surprising, and I certainly do not find it sinister. It goes back to the issue that was raised about whether there was political pressure. There was political criticism. I get political criticism all the time around coverage. It does not equate to pressure. It does not equate to pressure on journalists-

Senator LUDLAM: He said: ... the Turnbull camp and my superiors are going to come down on me like a tonne of bricks ...

CHAIR: Senator Ludlam, let Mr Scott finish his answer. 

Mr Scott: The defence that comes to bear comes with us delivering on our editorial policies and delivers on the charter.

Senator LUDLAM: I put to you that you have not delivered on your editorial policies in this instance. Has Mr Turnbull, while either in opposition or in government, approached you directly about the ABC's- 

Mr Scott: I am not sure about 'directly', but he certainly did mention it from time to time. If you really want me to document the number of times that politicians have mentioned or complained to me about coverage, it would be a long list of names-

Senator LUDLAM: My name would be on that list. 

Mr Scott: Senator Back is always very cordial. However, not everyone is as cordial as the good senator!

Senator LUDLAM: My name would be on that list as well, Mr Scott. I am aware of that. 

Mr Scott: Of course, and so can I say that-

Senator LUDLAM: I am trying to keep it to the subject 

Mr Scott: It is just par for the course.

Senator LUDLAM: No, this is something a little different. Unlike the usual par for the course, we have some insight in this case about some of the conversations that occur internally to try to take the political heat off the ABC. And that is rare. 

Mr Scott: The political heat comes off the ABC, and the defence that I can run here is that we are delivering within our editorial policies. If we are delivering the principal relevant perspectives and if we are delivering complete coverage then that is the defence. If, in fact, we cannot demonstrate that then there will be consequences, no matter who is in power and no matter what the committees are. The defence is that we meet the editorial requirements, and that is what we are looking to do.

Senator LUDLAM: Now I think we are getting close. In your view, why was that second piece, 'NBN alternative: Is Australia's copper network fit for purpose?' withheld? Mr Ross is of the view, on the basis of the evidence that he spent a fair bit of time going over, that it is not. He goes through material that came to one of the Senate standing committees. It was a fair bit of research. Why was that piece held up from publication- 

Mr Scott: I would have to check. I do not have advice on that.

Senator LUDLAM: That is what this whole question hinges on. It is that piece that was ready to run in May- 

Mr Scott: I can take that on notice. I am sorry, I do not have the detail on that chronology.

Senator LUDLAM: You are aware of the article that I am referring to? 

Mr Scott: Yes, I have seen that article.

Senator LUDLAM: It is the one that is referred to in the tape recording-not the first one that caused Media Watch and The Australian and the News Corp press to go on one of their character assassination ventures. It is the one that is being schooled on in this recorded conversation in May. That piece was held up for six months; it was not published until about a fortnight after the election. 

Mr Scott: I will come back to you on that, Senator.

Senator LUDLAM: I would appreciate that

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