Labor Senator Sam Dastyari has joined calls for an independent inquiry into the ABC’s coverage of the NBN in the lead-up to the 2013 federal election and revelations that one of its most senior executives ordered a “hit piece” on former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, to provide “insurance” against Coalition attacks.
Dastyari joins a growing number of voices demanding the ABC Board launch an inquiry into the issue, including respected former ABC journalist Quentin Demster and Labor opposition communications spokesman Jason Clare.
In May 2013, former Games and Technology editor Nick Ross secretly tape-recorded a meeting with his boss, Head of Current Affairs, Bruce Belsham, in which Ross was directed to write what Dastyari called a “hit piece” on former Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, and Labor’s handling of the NBN roll out.
Belsham told Ross he liked a piece Ross had written questioning the capacity of Australia’s copper telecommunications network to handle a National Broadband Network, a key plank of the Coalition’s election policy.
Despite telling Ross he had “no problems with the article, per se” Belsham refused to publish it, telling Ross an article attacking Labor on any issue around the NBN was needed in order to provide “insurance” against criticism from the Coalition. You can read the original article here, and all of New Matilda’s coverage here.
In a Senate Estimates hearing this afternoon, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott faced a grilling from Dastyari and Greens Senator Scott Ludlam over the revelations published in New Matilda a fortnight ago.
Scott told the committee the ABC Board was meeting on Thursday, and that it commissions four reviews a year.
Dastyari responded: “At that Board meeting, the Board can decide, should it choose to… to have a specific look at the entire Nick Ross matter, and the matters that were raised by Nick Ross. And then it could also decide, should it choose to, to have a review into the overall coverage of the NBN, which is the broader issue which has been touched on by Mr Ross?”
Scott responded: “Or they might choose another topic or they may choose that they have enough in the pipeline at the moment.”
Dastyari later noted, “I think I’ve made my point that there should be an independent review and investigation of this matter”.
Senator Ludlam zeroed in on the deafening silence out of the ABC on the Nick Ross matter – no outlet in the country has covered the story, and ABC’s Media Watch program has now twice ignored it.
“This might be in the nature of the snake eating it’s own tale,” Senator Ludlam said, “but there’s been almost no reporting, in fact maybe none, apart from New Matilda and Crikey, one piece in the Daily Tele attacking New Matilda – nothing from the ABC.
“You’ve clearly disputed what’s occurring, but you wouldn’t deny I hope that they are at least serious allegations. How do you handle reporting where the ABC itself is the subject?”
Scott replied: “It’s a good question Senator. I believe that if you look at our history we report robustly on ourselves. The toughest interviews I’ve ever had have been at the hands of ABC journalists.
“The question I would have on this matter, that’s just a matter for the editorial judgment of our news team.
“I’ve had no discussions with anyone around this matter. But I do think it’s noteworthy that people followed this matter closely, including those outlets that aren’t always favourable to the ABC and people have come to their own judgments.”
It prompted Ludlam to raise the elephant in the room: Let’s just take off the table, I think what you’re implying, is there hasn’t been any kind of directive go out editorially not to cover this?
SCOTT: Absolutely, absolutely not.
LUDLAM: So your entire cohort, maybe 2,000 journalists, have just decided unanimously that there is no public interest?
SCOTT: Can I say it doesn’t work like that Senator.
LUDLAM: Well, nothing’s been reported.
SCOTT: It’s not, contrary to some critics, a great collective where everyone does their own thing. Editorial judgment is made by our senior editorial managers. They decide what is newsworthy. Those who run current affairs programs and radio, and those who make decisions as to what goes online and news bulletins. So editorial judgments are made, and editorial judgments have been made on this, but none of that has been referred up to me and I’ve been privy to no conversation about this editorial coverage at all.
Scott also took the opportunity to provide a spirited defence of Bruce Belsham,
SCOTT: I want to put on the record my respect for Bruce Belsham.
DATSYARI: What about your respect for Mr Ross?
SCOTT: Well, I’ve already made comments about Mr Ross. But I want to put on the record my respect for Mr Belsham, who I think is an unfortunate victim in these circumstances. I believe he is an executive of great integrity who’s served the ABC with distinction for many years and his time as Executive Producer of 4 Corners was absolutely innovative and outstanding. I think it’s very important that his reputation not be hurt in this matter and I endorse his judgment and I believe he has done a strong job in his role.
New Matilda’s investigation into this matter is ongoing. You can help assist our reporting by subscribing to NM here – we rely almost entirely on reader subscriptions for our survival.