FALSE BALANCE: Nick Ross, Bruce Belsham And The ABC: The Story So Far

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With January 26 out of the way, New Matilda is returning to our reporting of the ABC False Balance saga later this week. Our reporting focus so far has been to show the false balance create by the ABC. Our next feature looks at the gagging of Nick Ross. In the meantime, here’s a quick update of what you need to know about the issue so far.

How far should ABC journalists be able to go in their criticisms of policies put forward by one particular side of politics?

That’s one of the questions at the heart of the Nick Ross story, the former ABC technology journalist who walked out on his job in spectacular fashion earlier this month.

Things kicked off on January 14 when Ross announced he had departed the ABC and subsequently took part in a mammoth AMA session, in which the popular social networking and news site Reddit allows users to put questions to celebrities, politicians, and general people of interest. Ross may not fall under either of the first two categories but the session certainly generated interest, allowing him to air allegations his highly critical reporting on the Coalition’s rival National Broadband Network plan had been ‘gagged’. The ABC denied the claim.

Cue the onslaught of coverage, howls of conspiracy, mockery and support on social media, and general cacophony. Special mention to The Australian for assiduously continuing to falsely report Ross had been ‘disciplined’ three years earlier by the ABC for bias.

As mainstream coverage started to fade Ross went public with secret recording of meetings with Head of the ABC’s Current Affairs division, Bruce Belsham.

The full transcript reveals a difference of opinion between Ross and Belsham about what role the public broadcaster should take when covering policy disputes like that surrounding the NBN. It also shows the way political considerations can influence day-to-day reporting at the ABC. While Ross hoped to continue reporting on flaws in the Coalition’s rival plan, which he believed to be inferior and ill-conceived, Belsham asks that he instead prepare an article looking more closely at Labor’s NBN plan. Belsham tells Ross it doesn’t really matter what Ross writes, provided it’s critical of Labor.

By way of context it’s worth reading this extensive piece published by Ross in February 2013. Even before then, Ross’ reporting had garnered attention. It is detailed and highly critical. In July 2012 Shadow Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull tweeted at Ross: “Your relentless NBN propaganda is an embarrassment to the ABC”.

Ross argues he made the recordings, taken without Belsham’s knowledge or permission, on the basis he could see where things were heading. He says that as his work came under public attack, he was left isolated at Ultimo.

The article discussed in the transcript was eventually published by the ABC after the election, though Ross’ reporting on the issue subsided from that time on.

In an interview with New Matilda Belsham described the conversations as ‘private’ and ‘professional’ in nature and said:  “…I was concerned about Nick’s capacity to keep reporting, both from a personal point of view and a professional point of view, to keep on reporting on this material, and on this issue, and that there were obligations underneath the ABC editorial policies to make sure that all sides of the argument were covered.”

“I also felt that there [was a need for]greater scrutiny of the Labor Plan, which I felt that we needed to cover in the interests of balance and accuracy.”

So was Ross pressured to move his focus away from what he believed was a faulty plan being proposed by a Coalition Party about to snatch government – and take control of the ABC’s funding? Or is this simply the case of a reporter being blinded by their personal beliefs?

We’ve published the full transcript of one of the meetings between Belsham and Ross, recorded on May 28, 2013, here, and readers can draw their own conclusions. These are some of the quick takeaways.

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Belsham, talking about another article critical of the Coalition proposed by Ross:

  • “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…”

Belsham tells Ross he needs “insurance” to allow him to keep criticising the Coalition plan:

  • “…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.”

And this exchange perhaps most clearly illustrates the differences in the approaches Ross and Belsham take to the issue of balance. They start by discussing potential flaws in Labor’s NBN plan:

  • “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.”

The publication of the transcripts has not sparked much interest in the mainstream media, aside from this valuable editorial and legal advice from Daily Telegraph blogger Tim Blair.

Since the Coalition’s rise to power a relentless attack on the ABC’s editorial line has been delivered by the conservative side of politics, both in Canberra and in the pages of the newspapers ideologically hostile and commercially jealous of Aunty’s huge reach and firm standing with the majority of the public.

So one interesting aspect of the Ross story has been the way it has provided a hook for progressive media critiques of Ultimo, with this piece by Jeff Sparrow about Andrew Bolt’s recent ABC adventures an excellent example. In a similar vein, former Fairfax journo Jim Parker turned his focus to the issue of ‘false balance’, pondering whether concentrating on ‘blue team vs red team’ political reporting undermines the ABC’s investigative faculties and specialist issue-based reporting.

Not that any of this has stopped conservative commentators from portraying the incident as a further example of a left-leaning bias in Ultimo, with Ross playing the role of renegade anti-Coalition crusader, forced to occasionally cover his tracks or buy “insurance” but ultimately prejudiced.

Chris Kenny lamented that the tempering of Ross by his editors only highlighted the lack of oversight in other areas of the ABC.

In a piece in which the paper’s Associate Editor quoted none other than himself, Kenny opted not to reflect on whether his own role as an advisor to Malcolm Turnbull may have given readers pause to consider similar question about the independence of his own reporting.

More to come soon.

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Max Chalmers

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.

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