When is a news site not a news site, and when is it propaganda? In these days of blurry lines, journalists need to be careful.

I was surprised earlier this week to get an e-mail from Telstra’s PR site www.nowwearetalking.com.au urging me to visit and watch a video interview of Sydney Morning Herald journalist Annabel Crabb talking about the impact of YouTube and new media on the election campaign.

Nowwetalking is a propaganda tool of Telstra – clever propaganda, but propaganda nevertheless. The site is mostly devoted to pushing Telstra’s point of view in the continuing stoush with the Government over Broadband regulation. In this election, Telstra is an interested party – having done mail outs on the issue to its shareholders and others, cuddled up to Labor over its fibre to the node plans, and so on and so forth.

Now Crabb, whose chirpy copy is one of the few bright spots in the beige of mainstream media coverage of the campaign, is being used to drive traffic to the site.

So is it an issue or not? The interview, in which Crabb is questioned by Telstra spinner Jeremy Mitchell, is a straight job – quite interesting, and no explicit plugs for Telstra. Both Mitchell and Crabb confirm that she received no payment. He rang up and asked, she said yes.

Crabb admits she didn’t think about it much. “I didn’t have any hesitations,” she says.

After all, she says, isn’t nowwearetalking a news site like any other?

But it isn’t. This site is the shopfront for Telstra’s attempt to mobilise community action to pressure the government on telecommunications regulation. Now Crabb is being used to drive traffic to the site.

Crabb says that if she worried about the commercial motivations of every platform she speaks on, she might not do Sky News, which is also partly owned by Telstra, or speak on commercial radio.

Meanwhile Crabb has another presence on YouTube – as the frontwoman for a Sydney Morning Herald plan to video members of the public wanting to ask politicians questions. The site is worth a look, and the questions people are asking are good too. People apparently filmed by Fairfax in the middle of Sydney ask questions about human rights, gay rights, world poverty… all the things that mainstream Australia isn’t meant to be interested in. This is an innovative use of new media combined with the pulling power and credibility of a mainstream media brand.

As Crabb says, it’s great that all these new media outlets and means of interaction are springing up. She is excited about it.

I agree. But even though the lines between PR and journalism are blurring ever more in the new media age, I think there is a difference. While I am sure Crabb’s motives were pure, I think this is a cautionary tale.