It is often said that the lines between public relations and journalism are blurring, but surely there is still a difference.

Nowhere is the line more cleverly blurred than on the Telstra Nowwearetalking website, where the Telstra message and attempt to incite a community movement against government regulation is sweetened with gobbets of content of genuine interest.

Last week I wrote about Annabel Crabb being used to drive content to the election section of this site. I said it was a cautionary tale. Telstra responded with not-so-veiled threats of defamation action.

Now another Fairfax journalist, Misha Schubert of The Age, is being promoted on Nowwearetalking as having done a video. The yet to be posted interview, Schubert tells me, is a brief talk about life on the campaign trail – the sort of thing she does for many different audiences, including schools. She told me she didn’t know that Nowwearetalking was part of Telstra’s PR. She doesn’t cover telecommunications, and was not aware of the issues involved.

I am not accusing either Schubert or Crabb of giving Telstra explicit plugs. The content they have provided – for no payment – is innocuous. But they are allowing themselves to be used in a highly political context. Both say they were told by Telstra that the interview would be used on an election site unrelated to Telstra’s commercial objectives. This is clearly not the case.

Here is the home page of Nowwearetalking. Its flavour is clear. Follow the links and you will find Telstra describing its competitors as leeches and parasites and launching vehement attacks on ACCC head Graeme Samuel. It is all about getting people to sign up as Telstra Active Supporters, which is about campaigning against “bureaucratic barriers and regulatory uncertainty… stopping Telstra from delivering on its strong plan to provide high-speed broadband across Australia.”

At present, the Nowwearetalking site leads with a vituperative attack on The Australian’s communications specialist, Michael Sainsbury – who has been a constant thorn in the Telstra saddle with what most of us would think of as good independent journalism. Last year the not-for-profit Australian Telecommunications Users Group made Sainsbury its journalist of the year.

Telstra’s attack on Sainsbury is cutely run under the headline “shareholders media watch”. Yet underneath it there is also this Telstra spin on executive pay rises, which suggests, at best, a less than uniform concern for the views of shareholders.

The election section of the Nowwearetalking site contains a fair bit of aggregated content of genuine interest, as well as the interviews with Crabb and others. But it is still part of a clever, aggressive and highly political PR campaign.

There is also an interview with Labor’s Communications spokesman Stephen Conroy, who gives a big plug to Labor’s Broadband policy. Telstra says it has offered all sides of politics a chance to participate, but Communications Minister Helen Coonan’s office told Crikey that she will not be participating – hardly surprising given the state of Telstra-Government relations, vis a vis the political implications of Labor’s Broadband policy.

How could some of our most respected journalists end up being used in this context? I fear that line has been blurred so much that some of them are having trouble seeing that it is there.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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