FALSE BALANCE: The Full Transcript Of The Meeting Between Nick Ross And Bruce Belsham

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Following is a transcript of a secretly-recorded meeting between ABC Tech editor Nick Ross, and ABC Head of Current Affairs, Bruce Belsham. The meeting was held on May 28, 2013 to discuss Ross’ reporting around the National Broadband Network, which had been highly critical of the Coalition’s election policy.

You can read the original report here and an analysis of the ABC’s broader NBN coverage here.

This transcript has not been edited, save to remove ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’. We’ve added the occasional editor’s note in square brackets to assist the reader with context, and where brief portions of the tape are indecipherable, that’s also noted in the transcript.

By way of background, Ross and Belsham occasionally refer to ‘the copper article’. The purpose of the meeting is for Belsham to approve and sign off on this article, which looks at whether or not the existing copper network which the Coalition are planning to use in their version of the NBN, is ‘fit for purpose’. The story was eventually run – six months later, and after the election. Despite this, the ABC maintain Nick Ross was not “gagged”. You can read that story here.

Ross and Belsham also occasionally refer to an ‘Aged Care’ article and ‘telehealth’. This is a reference to a piece Ross wrote to explain the benefits of Labor’s NBN model to the health care industry.

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BRUCE BELSHAM, HEAD OF CURRENT AFFAIRS: 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. If you publish one of those it will make a lot of difference in terms of the…

NICK ROSS, EDITOR, ONLINE GAMING AND TECHNOLOGY: Can I do their marketing of it, or is that too obscure.

BB: No well I think the problem with that is going to be is…

NR: I’ve already done it.

BB: I think the problem with that is going to be ‘Yeah, great product, shit marketing,’ you know. Ah what I would like to see, and from a journalistic point of view, I would like to see a proper analysis of the roll out plan in terms of time, you know, and the time, the money, you know, what, are there protestations they’re on time and on money, how credible is that?

NR: I’ve been looking at that. The thing is it’s so far off technology, it’s, it’s, the thing is I talked to NBN Co about this who were very honest about it as well, is, and what they’re saying has actually come to affect. I don’t know if you saw a story yesterday, they’re about to announce the numbers are higher for connections than they originally forecast. Sometimes it goes up because they run into a problem and sometimes it goes down. And Anything I say is basically, it’s not going to be so much negative, it’s that it will go up and down, again the general tone would be positive. I mean I know they’re getting the crap kicked out them elsewhere, but I mean I’ve looked at all of those things, and in every case it’s um, well ‘What would you rather they did’. And there’s no alternative given, it’s just ‘oh they said they’d do it in this time, and then something came up like there was a flood and then, delayed. They get kicked for being late. And it’s how to criticize that.

BB: This is about Commonwealth too. There’s been a lot of issue around what they’ve promised and what they’ve been able to deliver. You know going right back to the first implementation plan. I mean if you look at that first plan and where they’re up to now, it’s chalk and cheese.

NR: Yeah, but in many beneficial ways. This is again the problem, ‘cos I have looked at that, and this is where everyone else is kicking them. But it’s like, ‘Oh you were delayed for this much time’. But it’s like ‘Well yeah we saved $7 billion and shaved four, five years off the overall incline. And so that can be spun… and the other one was well for every price rise they’ve done they’ve actually made more, they’re going to make more money off the back of it. And I mean I’ve looked at all of this the whole way through and um it really is, it’s the only way you can really kick them is by ignoring the knock on consequences of the delay. Because I mean every delay they’ve done has actually been for a good reason thus far.

BB: I’m not asking you to invent something.

NR: Oh I know that.

BB: But I do think that for a range of reasons, that plan, that NBN plan, is not going to be the one the country gets.

NR: Well only if everyone was uninformed about it, I would have thought.

BB: No, well that’s, that may or may not be the case. But in the end the NBN and the NBN company will be a failure, however you categorise it.

NR: I couldn’t disagree more, but…

BB Oh, It will be a failure.

NR: How?

BB: It will be a failure, because it won’t be delivered and that’s a marketing and political failure.

NR: I mean this is surely where the media should step in, I mean the thing is at the moment…

BB: Our job is not to step in, our job is just to reflect, it’s just to report on what happens you know.

NR: I mean, well here’s the thing, right, so you got the copper one [the story Ross and Belsham have met to discuss]is why the Coalition’s [Plan] won’t work, but the one that is coming is in two away is the tele-healthcare. I’ve just come from Cbit talking to CSIRO and NICTA, they’ve got their demos there. The Aged Health care thing, benefits of the NBN, are going to save this country billions a year, and only by having Labor’s plan, not the Coalition’s.

BB: But Nick, again, you’re getting, you’re proselytizing. The reality is, whether you like it or not [INDECIPHERABLE] that if there’s a change of government, and there’s a 90 per cent chance of a change of government, um, there, that the NBN will not be delivered in a way that Labor has promised. Because that’s not going to happen. So you know, I think…

NR: Look, I mean again, from a journalistic point of view, the main reason for that is no-one knows anything about it, and if everyone knew about the aged care issue, then…

BB: It’s not just about that, because on balance, on balance, you know, people are still supporters of the NBN. It’s not a passionate support. It’s not enough of a support to override all of the other things people are pissed off with the government about. So it’s not going to happen. So you know, I dunno, I think, I’m just trying to, what I’m saying to you is, 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. We’ve got to give you some kind of insurance policy, you know. An insurance policy is an article where you are hard-headed about something to do with the NBN’s failings, or, you know, potential failings. One of the quite basic failures is it’s not going to happen. That’s a fundamental failing. The fact they’ve got to September 2013 and it’s not rolled out and it’s not in enough homes and it’s not in enough places to materially affect the vote is a failing.

NR: I guess. Doesn’t that become a self-fulfilling prophecy after a while though if we start saying that?

BB: We’re not interested in, we’re not about determining the outcome or the view one way or the other, we’re just about reporting. That is the reality.

NR: But I mean I was reporting on the copper…

BB: Yeah look, I like the copper piece and I would like to publish it, but I’m just saying, before I can let you do that, so I don’t have screams from the 14th floor, and, and so you don’t go through the same crisis that you went through a few weeks ago [a reference to public attacks directed against Ross by Malcolm Turnbull and media], we need to give ourselves, and say ‘look, this guy is prepared to be critical of some aspects of the NBN, he’s written this tough article about X’. Whether it’s about marketing, I think personally, rightly or wrong, the fact the NBN is not out there in as many homes as it needs to be, to be a political weapon, is a failing.

NR: That could change in June.

BB: So I’ll just leave that ball in your court. That doesn’t have to be the angle.

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NR: No, I see what you’re saying, I’m just working out how. I mean I’ve been looking at this for so long, and it’s so, on balance, one-sided which one. It’s hard…

BB: From the standpoint of ‘Ok you’ve delivered the Labor plan and it’s across the country, and you’ve delivered the Coalition plan and it’s across the country,’ I don’t think even Malcolm Turnbull would argue that one’s better than the other. The argument is really about what’s achievable and what’s not achievable, and frankly, and I regret it, I don’t know, but in the end we’re going to have fibre to the node, and we’re not going to have fibre to the home. That’s just the way the politics is going to be played.

NR: But what if we showed though, like, just say the copper thing [a reference to his ‘copper story], because I’ve finally got all these guys on the record for the first time. And they’re about to do a huge campaign on it saying it won’t work.

BB: I’d love you to be able to publish that, I just need some kind of thing to be able to say, ‘Look, Nick is not completely obsessed with bashing the Coalition and saying why it won’t work on this, he’s looking at the whole thing, and just look at this article he published last week on…’

NR: Would you still be able to show, I mean, I’ve been very critical of the government as well, like their internet filter thing.

BB: No, no, no.

NR: It has to be the NBN specifically?

BB: Look. Look. I’m being, and this conversation is for this room only, but for a variety of reasons, you know, partly because I think you didn’t, in particular the big piece you did [which sparked the Turnbull and media attack], but then a couple of other things including the press conference, and the fact you didn’t fly that other article by me so I couldn’t fire proof it – we didn’t get a yelp out of the ultra high def thing, [another article Ross had reently published]and that was because it was a just a little bit of sort of safety built into it, and it was fine, but it still made the point. And we could have done that all along. But we haven’t done that all along. So we’ve got a problem. And before I can unleash another two or three, or let you unleash another two or three things that are critical of the Coalition’s plan, we need, you know, we need some insurance.

NR: Um, no, no, I see exactly where you come from, I’m just thinking very hard as to where it comes from… because, I mean, the thing I’ve been lamenting about so much media coverage is they just cherry-pick the facts and ignore the counter-facts that undermine it at every level. And my whole thing is just to make it impossible to pick holes in what I write.

BB: Oh, but maybe just analysis of ‘Why is the NBN late?’

NR: It’s only two months though, officially. I mean, can you just tell me what you mean by that?

BB: Well I… I don’t know enough about the details. But every time I hear Conroy talk about it, he fudges things you know. Instead of just saying ‘There will be X number of connections and homes connected by’, which is what he started out as saying, it’s all about ‘have been past homes, or rolled’… it’s all this political bullshit which is about, which is covering up the fact that in the scheme of things, [there are]fuck all places that are connected and using the NBN.

NR: I know exactly why that is. But I mean that’s down to the way Conroy’s presenting it and making it look absolutely crazy. I mean, at the end of the day, the curve goes like that – it’s a huge ramp up – and then they’ve had to change it so it goes like that, but it’s almost exactly the same. But I think I’ve already written a piece on the differences. Oh no, I did it on radio. Um. I’ll keep looking for some chink there.

BB: I think something that says, if you sorta said ‘Why is the NBN politically vulnerable?’ Well, it’s politically vulnerable because the benefits are still in the future and the reason they’re still in the future are blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

NR: That’s about to change as well. This aged care stuff’s happening right now in a trial.

BB: Yeah, well that’s fine. But it doesn’t really have those kind of benefits unless, unless hundreds and hundreds of thousands of homes are wired. How many homes are wired to the NBN at the moment?

NR: Well not many, but I mean isn’t that a reason for why you’d do it, because of the statistics….

BB: Well, not when you’ve got an election looming in four months time, where the government has said, whose consistently said, we think this is a white elephant and we’re not going to pay for it. You know I mean that, for whatever reason that’s a political failure, it’s a political and marketing failure.

NR: I agree it’s political marketing. I don’t know if you followed some of the links, I left this all out, really, I just linked to one bit. It’s almost certain, well it is certain, that the Coalition’s [Plan] going to cost more and they’re going to be spending the actual money that says that. Basically because the copper, the model they’re following is German and if they do that, it’s going to blow out by $20-40 billion when they try and do it.

BB: Well that may be true. I think the NBN costs is going to blow out as well, because you cant, you can’t [INDECIPHERABLE] connecting people are not [INDECIPHERABLE] final cost…

NR: Again, not wanting to be argumentative there, but the thing is I’m just thinking what they’ll come back with because I talked to them, their whole thing is it’s a slow ramp up where they do all the background stuff, and then once they start doing the houses it’s really fast.

BB: You can write that. You can write their argument and you can report that accurately. But you don’t have to be a cheerleader for it, you can just lay it out. I mean if I was faced with this task, I’d say, ‘OK why are we not going to get an NBN? Why are we not going to get fibre to the home?’

NR: That’s a political [story]rather than technology, though.

BB: It’s all political.

NR: But I don’t do politics though, this is the thing.

BB: Well… [NR interjects, INDECIPHERABLE]… there are a bunch of technical reasons why they’re late – you can extrapolate those. And the way they have, look, you know, I wouldn’t let you publish without showing it to me, because it does have to be fireproofed and it’s got to be credible, but, I think, I think something of that kind means that you can then go on and do the copper thing and the health thing, and, you know, we’re on comfortable ground. Right. And it gives me a huge amount of, to be able to go and say to people externally and internally, ‘Look, you know, Nick’s written this tough piece on the roll out’… or whatever it might be.

NR: Okay.

BB: Realpolitik, I’m not talking morality here, I’m talking about realpolitik.

NR: Yeah, sorry. It’s all new to me, it’s something I’ve been trying so hard to keep out of, but I see what you’re saying.

BB: Yeah, yeah, I know, I know. And look I understand that it’s not entirely fair. But I do think from where I sit that you do have this not entirely journalistic view that the NBN has just so many massive benefits that you can’t turn around and put it under the kind of forensic and scrupulous microscope that you’ve done to parts of the Coalition plan. And I do think that if you did that exercise in the same way you’re doing the Coalition plan, you’ll find stuff that needs to be talked about and needs to be commented on.

NR: I really did, first two years I spent going through, the problem is their figures add up. I mean the problem is they don’t even say their figures. I’m the one who had to tell everyone that their figures add up because they won’t even tell anyone. I was one of the last people to write an article about the NBN because I didn’t trust anything anyone was saying. And then found out from all the doctors and CSIRO and people like that, that it’s like, what the savings were.

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BB: No, no, I still think you’re doing really good research but I still don’t think that, that doesn’t to me marry with the way that Conroy fudges about it, the lack of connections with the fact that they haven’t delivered anywhere near on the scale they would need to have delivered in order for it to be a politically powerful weapon in this…

NR: Well that’s true [INDECIPHERABLE] again it’s just…

BB: Well I think the other thing is the promises, whether they were made politically or made by the NBN, the promises were probably never realistic in terms of time frame.

NR: What the early one?

BB: Yeah.

NR: Well you can go back years for that one. [LONG PAUSE]. I, I, just, I’ve been working… I know what they’ll say to that. It’s like, that’s why they changed the overall, and now they’ve got to the point where they’ve actually come through it.

BB: That’s fine. And you can. But I think that…

NR: (INDECIPH) Well maybe I could do that actually, ‘Why is it so late using what everyone thinks the reasons are it’s so late. I mean I won’t bother to include it.

BB: Just lay it out, just lay it out. You know, ‘Why is the NBN late, why is it vulnerable, why does everybody think it’s running over cost?’

NR: OK, I think I could do a good one on that.

BB: And don’t, you know, you don’t have to be an attack dog on it. But equally you don’t have to defend, defend all of [INDECIPHERABLE].

NR: OK.

BB: I mean I think I would start it by saying ‘Look, there’s every prospect that Labor will lose the election in September. And the truth is if that happens, the NBN we have been promised and a lot of people had hoped for will not be delivered. How did this come to pass? And go back to look at what was promised when, what, why there were the delays, just a sort of straight piece of reporting about what happened, and you might be able to say that there were good reasons at this point and this point and this point, but the truth is in the end we’ve got to a point where it’s not, you see if it had reached the kind of critical mass, where it was an unstoppable momentum, it would happen, it would probably continue to happen. But it hasn’t got to that point and it won’t reach that point by September.

NR: But isn’t it, I mean, just I’d be interested in your view, isn’t a large reason for that just the way the media’s portrayed it.

BB: No, I don’t think so.

NR: But I mean, surely if the media were saying, because people don’t actually know what it’s even for.

BB: No, I think the media on the whole has been quite supportive of the NBN.

NR: Really?

BB: I don’t see much at all in the way of, I mean there’s a bit of stuff in the conservative press about Quigley and about whether the NBN is too secretive, etc etc but I don’t see people taking to the NBN with brick bats at all?

NR: Really?

BB: Not in the way they have with things like the mining tax, or, because essentially it’s popular, people understand that it’s popular. And people buy the, you know I think most people buy the fact that they want the educational capacity, and the health capacity and the entertainment capacity that it delivers, but for most people it’s so far in the never-never that it’s not politically persuasive.

NR: But isn’t that because they’re uninformed and they don’t know about it? Because I’m probably the only journo who knows about the tele-healthcare stuff because I’m the only one whose researched it.

BB: Yeah, but, but, if you are told what you were told last election. And people like Oakeshott and Windsor basically framed their vote for Labor around delivering the NBN, and one would assume with a political assumption that it was going to be rolled out to a lot of Australians, then that would be a powerful political argument in favour of their re-election etc etc. So a lot of people have taken at face value the early promises around the delivery of the NBN and that hasn’t happened.

NR: So are people really expecting it to have come out since the last election then?

BB: Oh you know, go back, I’d be interested just as a timeline on this story, what have they promised, when [INDECIPHERABLE].

NR: But I know what the answer’s going to be, but at the same time it’s going to be interesting to see what everyone was promised. Yeah, I see where you’re coming from at that. Because the promises, this is where politicians should just keep the hell away from technology.

BB: Yeah but you can’t spend $40 billion bucks on something without persuading people.

NR: Or a cost benefit analysis.

BB: Without selling them the benefits and selling them promises about what was going to happen and when, and that hasn’t been delivered. In the end that’s the fundamental flaw, and that’s the issue, and because it hasn’t been delivered, people say that wasn’t true, so what else wasn’t true? Is it going to cost twice as much? It seems to be taking twice as long? Those are all reasonable assumptions for ordinary people to make.

NR: I mean, I’ve just been looking at it from a scientific point of view, hiding behind facts rather than the politics, I mean I’m not going to vote for anyone.

BB: I’m not saying you have to make a sort of a political judgment, but I think you can say, I mean just say look, ‘Ok if we don’t get fibre to the home… what’s happened that got us to this point. Just a sort of timeline. This was what was promised, this is what happened, this is what happened, this is what happened, this is what happened.’ And if your conclusion is ‘Look, in the end it hasn’t proceeded any faster than you could reasonably expect, and it’s going to be on budget,’ but, that’s not what everybody believes…

NR: It’s managing expectations.

BB: Managing expectations, or setting expectations in the first place, you know, unrealistic expectations

NR: Yeah I can do something with that. It’s not my comfort zone but I mean. [INDECIPHERABLE].

BB: Turn around something that you feel is [INDECIPHERABLE] and actually putting it under a microscope. It’s actually good for your journalistic kind of muscles.

NR: Ok. Alright, I’ll go and do that.

[TAPE ENDS]

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