Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has been drawn into the growing scandal around how the ABC shaped its editorial positions on the National Broadband Network in the lead up to the 2013 election, based on fears around how the “Turnbull camp” would react.
Under questioning from Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare this afternoon, Turnbull admitted he had spoken privately with ABC Management about the national broadcaster’s coverage of the NBN.
“…Did I complain about this to the ABC? The answer is yes, I did complain,” Turnbull told Parliament.
“But I complained publicly, I was very public about it and made this point: … In any of my discussions with the Chief Executive at any time I’ve said exactly the same things privately as I’ve said publicly,” Turnbull said.
The journalistic integrity of the ABC’s coverage of the NBN has been under scrutiny for the past fortnight since New Matilda published the contents of secretly taped recordings made by Aunty’s former Technology Editor Nick Ross.
The tapes reveal that the head of Current Affairs at the ABC, Bruce Belsham refused to publish a story by Ross critical of the Coalition’s NBN plan until he wrote an article – any article – that was critical of Labor’s NBN roll-out.
Belsham told Ross he needed “insurance” against the “Turnbull camp”, who would come down on him “like a tonne of bricks” over the negative coverage. Belsham also said senior ABC Management would be angered.
“… this conversation is for this room only, but for a variety of reasons (all of them centred around Ross’ critical reporting of the Coalition NBN policy)… 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.
“Realpolitik, I’m not talking morality here, I’m talking about realpolitik,” Belsham told Ross.
“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 [Labor’s] NBN failings, or, you know, potential failings.”
In the meeting, Belsham stated there was “a 90 per cent chance of a change of government” at the 2013 election, then just four months away.
Turnbull was Shadow Communications at that time, and therefore, on Belsham’s logic, 90 per cent likely to become the Minister responsible for the ABC.
This afternoon, the Leader of the House, Christopher Pyne tried to shield Turnbull from questioning, which he described as a “fishing expedition”.
But the question was allowed, and Clare came back for a second swing.
“I refer to [Turnbull’s] previous answer: His admission that he complained privately to the ABC, and given evidence that [Ross’] story was dropped because of concerns by the ‘Turnbull camp’, and given concerns that the Coalition has about bias at the ABC, will he conduct an independent inquiry into this, just like he did about QandA?”
The answer to that question never quite came.
After admitting that he had been “reading about this in the media,” Turnbull claimed that his earlier response was “not directed to any particular story of the journalist concerned”.
“I don’t recall the article that [sparked the meeting between Belsham and Ross],” Turnbull said.
Turnbull might not remember the article now, but he was certainly aware of the story when it broke. It was a 10,000 word opus from Ross, savaging the Coalition’s NBN plan. Here’s Turnbull’s attack on Nick Ross at the time, via his Twitter account.
Grahame Lynch Commsday founder and editor exposes the bias and ignorance of the ABC’s Nick Ross http://t.co/A0J7YMskLu
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) February 21, 2013
Turnbull’s bullying and aggression on social media towards journalists, and his habit of calling media bosses with complaints, is well documented. In the lead-up to Nick Ross taping his meeting with Belsham, Turnbull had repeatedly launched public attacks against the journalist, at one point tweeting that his “relentless NBN propaganda is an embarrassment to the ABC”.
@ABCtech that is not true. I have written and spoken about this constantly. Your relentless NBN propaganda is an embarrassment to the ABC — Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) July 23, 2012
As Minister for Communications it was Turnbull who intervened personally in April 2015 after SBS journalist Scott McIntyre issued a series of personal tweets about Anzac Day. Turnbull phoned the managing director of SBS, Michael Ebeid, directly – McIntyre was sacked a short time later.
Jason Clare has publicly called for an independent inquiry into the ABC’s coverage of Labor’s NBN. He joins a growing list of prominent people demanding answers, including former ABC journalist Quentin Dempster and Victorian Minister for Small Business, Innovation and Trade, Philip Dalidakis.
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