FALSE BALANCE: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil… The Debate The ABC Has To Have

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The silence around the Nick Ross-Bruce Belsham revelations is deafening. Chris Graham weighs in.

As I write this, it’s now 72 hours since New Matilda revealed that in the lead-up to the 2013 federal election, the Head of Current Affairs at the ABC, Bruce Belsham directed Tech editor Nick Ross to find a story – any story – critical of Labor’s NBN plan, in order to provide “insurance” against attacks from the Coalition.

The story has been met with a stony silence from both mainstream media and (almost all) our elected representatives. And yet, the revelations are undeniable – they’re caught on tape, albeit illicitly, and are reproduced in a full transcript, without edit, here.

The response from media is staggering. Save for a blog on the Daily Telegraph attacking New Matilda, no mainstream media outlet anywhere in the nation has reported one syllable of the revelations. Not even The Guardian.

Instead, it’s been left to truly independent media – notably Crikey and also Independent Australia – to carry this story, and to absorb the risks associated with publishing it. A clearer example of collective media cowardice I’m yet to encounter, in almost three decades in the media.

On that front, a story filed by Crikey argues that what New Matilda has published so far does not substantiate the claims by Nick Ross that he was gagged. While we respectfully disagree, that story wasn’t intended to prove Ross was gagged. It was intended to reveal the conduct of Belsham.

Head of the ABC's Current Affairs division, Bruce Belsham. (IMAGE: Courtesy of Mumbrella).
Head of the ABC’s Current Affairs division, Bruce Belsham. (IMAGE: Courtesy of Mumbrella).

Ross met with Belsham three times over his reporting – reporting, it’s worth noting, which Belsham repeatedly acknowledged was good. A feature on the second meeting between the two will be ready as soon as possible – while it requires significant fact-checking and legalling before it can be published, it proves irrefutably that Ross was gagged.

Speaking of gagged, there are almost 2,000 journalists employed at the ABC – it’s simply inconceivable that not one of them has considered Thursday’s revelations newsworthy. The ABC hasn’t even published a defence of the revelations, let alone explored the claims.

Suspicious minds might suggest a circular has gone around the national broadcaster from management directing staff not to report the story. Of course, that’s ridiculous – they’re never that overt. But what’s most concerning is that, apparently, a directive doesn’t need to be sent around by management. Staff at the ABC apparently seem to already understand that the story must not be reported.

If you were already concerned about the capacity of ABC journalists to operate fearlessly and without favour, then it’s the ABC’s collective reaction to this story that speaks loudest.

Fearless, independent journalism means publishing the truth, regardless of the ‘political environment’ in which you operate. At New Matilda, I believe we do that consistently and ethically.

Our editorial process has two steps: 1. Is it true? 2. Is it in the public interest. If a story passes those two tests, it get’s published, albeit sometimes with a lengthy delay.

The fact is, we have bugger-all resources – most of our staff aren’t even paid for their work, me included. And on that front, you can assist our work, in this order of importance: 1. Share this story with family and friends, and social media; 2. Support our Pozible fundraising campaign here; 3. Subscribe to New Matilda here. We’re done being coy about fundraising – New Matilda needs your help to survive.

But if we can do it, and if the similarly resourced Independent Australia and the only slightly better resourced Crikey can weigh in, why can’t a billion dollar taxpayer funded media organisation?

No-one ever suggested that working for the national broadcaster was going to be easy. In Melbourne recently, staff were warned not to wear their lanyards outside the building, after new threats of violence. That’s an appalling situation which has been created and fanned by people like Tony Abbott and Eric Abetz, and by media commentators like Andrew Bolt and Tim Blair.

But it’s also no excuse for not doing your job. Journalists at the ABC have a clear duty – if they can’t perform it, they shouldn’t be there.

There’s other cowardice to consider in all this as well. As usual, the Labor Party has been found wanting. They haven’t made a single statement about the Ross-Belsham allegations either. You do have to wonder about the state of the Opposition when, presented a gift horse like this, they simply stand there and look it in the mouth.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten (IMAGE: Takver, Flickr).
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten… saving the ABC apparently doesn’t include ensuring it operates without fear or favour. (IMAGE: Takver, Flickr).

And then there’s the response on social media. While New Matilda has obviously received substantial support from our readers (and new readers), which we appreciate greatly, the usual suspects – the ‘mean tweeters’ – are determined to keep the focus on the whistleblower. Quite a few of these people work within the media, and they’re in overdrive trying to help divert a discussion away from their own prior conduct, and that of their ‘mates in the media’.

It’s no secret I have little regard or respect for organisations like News Corp and Fairfax (with some obvious journalistic exceptions in both organisations), but I’ll take the collective indifference of those companies over the sycophantic cowardice of some others any day.

But back to the ABC. If Aunty cannot even concede that Bruce Belsham did anything wrong, let alone breached the ABC charter, then how can anyone expect the organisation to engage in the broader debate about its own capacity to report fearlessly and independently.

And why should anyone trust anything the ABC has to say in future?

This is the greatest shame of this story. There are many Australians, myself included, who deeply value the work of the national broadcaster. While the ABC has occasionally perpetrated some of the worst journalism in the history of Australian reporting, it has also, much more consistently, produced some of the best. That is undeniable, as even the briefest scan of the Walkley Awards will attest.

And that’s one of the reasons why the standard expected of the ABC is so much higher, and rightly so. Bad journalism happens – no media outlet is immune from it, because we’re staffed by humans. So it’s the response to bad journalism that really matters, and the ABC’s response on this occasion – and others – has been to spin and lie.

The gutting and gagging of the ABC, at least at this juncture, appears complete.

Finally, when New Matilda published this story, there were a few things that were very clear to us. Firstly, it would put us in breach of the NSW Surveillance Devices Act.

We had one option that might have provided a defence under that Act: to simply print the allegations against Bruce Belsham without reference to the tape recordings, and then allow him and the ABC to go out into the public domain and ‘deny, deny, deny’, before springing the tape on them a few days later. That strategy would have potentially triggered a defence for New Matilda under the Surveillance Devices Act – namely that we were only revealing the existence of the tape to protect our legal (professional) interests.

It was a strategy we considered in depth prior to publication. Indeed, when we initially put the allegations to Mr Belsham, he did lie, denying any such conversation took place. But in the end, we decided to publish the story without hiding the existence of the tapes.

We did so primarily because we were concerned that Mr Belsham’s reputation would already be damaged enough by the revelations, let alone a few days of publicly denying their contents, only to be exposed as a gargantuan liar. Every public protestation would have been another nail in Mr Belsham’s reputational coffin.

In hindsight, given the conduct of Mr Belsham and the ABC in denying the story, and then heading to ground when it could no longer be denied (we’ve put additional questions about other meetings between Mr Belsham and Mr Ross to the ABC and Mr Belsham, which they are now refusing to answer) we should probably have adopted a more self-serving position, and let Mr Belsham and the ABC dig their own graves.

Former ABC Tech editor, Nick Ross.
Former ABC Tech editor, Nick Ross.

The second major issue we considered before publishing was how this story would be received. On the one hand, it would challenge the left: here is the smoking gun that their beloved ABC does not operate the way in which it says it does, and the way in which it should. It is neither fearless, nor independent.

On the other hand, the story would challenge the right: They’ve long maintained that the ABC is biased against the Coalition – a ridiculous argument, particularly in light of these latest revelations.

So we knew the story wasn’t going to win us many friends. We knew that we would be attacked. We knew there was a real chance of serious prosecution, a chance that endures. I am facing up to five years jail for publishing the story; so are my colleagues. We all face substantial fines, and New Matilda as a corporate entity does as well.

And yet, we published regardless. That’s because (a) the story is true; (b) because that’s our job; (c) because we genuinely believe in journalism without fear or favour; and (d) because there is a clear, undeniable public interest in this story.

It just turns out that the mainstream media has decided it’s not a story the public will be interested in. Which, of course, is not the reason at all why they remain silent. The media is a club, and while there’s room in that club for navel gazing and self-reflection, there are acceptable limits. The bigger the stakes, the greater the limits.

As a result of the continuing lack of broader media interest, there are some likely outcomes to this disgraceful saga. Top of the list is that Bruce Belsham will likely receive no sanction whatsoever for his conduct. Meanwhile, Nick Ross’ career and reputation is in ruins.

Having endured two and a half years of silence, unable to defend his own reputation through substantial misreporting by media, Ross now continues to be mocked on social media, in particular by journalists (including from within the ABC) who seem to think that memes and the casting of whistleblowers as mentally unstable is an acceptable way to engage in an important story.

Belsham, by contrast, will likely remain on his substantial salary and at worst simply be moved quietly from the position of Head of Current Affairs when the stink dies down. Any other course of action from the ABC would involve acknowledging that a wrong has occurred, and at this juncture, that admission looks highly unlikely. Far easier to hang Nick Ross out to dry instead.

That prospect is deeply disturbing.

And so, my final message is to ABC employees directly: If you really care about your organisation, if you care about journalism in this country, and if you care about your colleagues, then you’ll speak out. You’ll do your job.

Nick Ross is the living testament to what might happen to you if you do. And that in itself should be motivation enough for you to act, because not only is it the right thing to do, but you could be next.

If you can’t act, then can I respectfully suggest you go and find a job in public relations. I hear the Coalition is hiring.

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Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. Chris has won a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards for his reporting. He lives in Brisbane and splits his time between Stradbroke Island, where New Matilda is based, and the mainland.

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