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Jan 15, 2016

Did the ABC gag its tech journo to stay in Turnbull's good books?

An ABC technology writer, who has taken a redundancy, says the public broadcaster "gagged" him from writing on the NBN so as not to upset the Liberals.

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Former ABC technology editor Nick Ross, who accepted a redundancy from the organisation this week, says he was “gagged” from writing about the National Broadband Network in 2013 because the public broadcaster did not wish to antagonise the incoming communications minister Malcolm Turnbull.

“I got told at the time by senior ABC management that [the ABC] was preparing for the Liberals to win the next election and didn’t want to piss them off, particularly with Malcolm Turnbull being in charge of the ABC,” Ross told Crikey today.

Ross says his articles during that time were held back or not published at all. “I was told flatly at that point that there was nothing wrong with [my articles] … but that the NBN is dead and there was no point creating a fuss. That was three months before the election.”

Crikey asked the ABC whether it was true that political considerations played a part in Ross no longer writing on the NBN. A written response said it was “nonsense” to say Ross had been gagged at all.

In March 2013, in the lead-up to the last federal election, Ross was at the centre of a media storm after The Australian wrote a piece claiming he had been “disciplined” by the ABC after an extraordinary 11,000-word article highly critical of the Liberal plan for an NBN was heavily criticised by both Turnbull and some rival technology journalists. The original headline on the Oz‘s piece was, “ABC disciplines NBN blogger”, which was softened online after Ross complained he had received no formal sanction.

The saga didn’t end there, with the ABC’s Media Watch then airing a segment critical of Ross. While noting he hadn’t been disciplined by ABC management, then-host Jonathan Holmes did conclude that Ross had stepped over the line in terms of advocating one policy over another. “Ross is an advocate — and it shows … You can’t help but admire Nick Ross’ industry — and there’s no doubt that his passion for the NBN is sincere. But in my view, the chat came none too soon.”

Ross has not written widely on the NBN since then, with former communications minister Stephen Conroy asking why in Senate estimates last year.

“The ABC’s technology section used to publish an extensive amount of quality journalism on the NBN, with some very detailed pieces. I have been to it regularly. I go there to see what the latest news is, but nothing seems to be happening at all any more. There are almost no stories. Nick Ross used to write extensively for it. Now I can’t find a single Nick Ross story on the website. Why is that?”

In an answer to a question on notice, the ABC said:

“The ABC’s Technology and Games website covers a wide range of technology and games related issues and developments with very few resources. The site has a single editor who edits the site and is its only dedicated writer. Prior to the last election it was appropriate for the Technology and Games site to provide its readers with explanation and analysis of the competing technologies proposed by the then government and the Opposition. The election effectively ended that debate.”

It has long been speculated that Ross had been banned from writing about the NBN after 2013. He told Crikey this morning that during the scandal, he had been told by the ABC’s media advisers not to speak to journalists and “let the news cycle pass”. But since taking redundancy from the ABC, he now says he had indeed been “gagged” from writing on the NBN

The ABC strongly disputes this allegation.

“The notion that Nick Ross has ever been ‘gagged’ by anyone at the ABC is nonsense,” a spokesperson said. “The advice Ross received was that, as with all other topics, coverage of the NBN issue required adherence to ABC editorial policies, which require appropriately reflecting all major points of view. As is normal editorial practice with all coverage of all significant issues, Ross was expected to upwardly refer anything controversial.”

Ross’ claims, which were first made on Twitter yesterday, have prompted a great deal of interest in the tech journalism industry and beyond. Some of it has not been complimentary. Grahame Lynch, the founder of telecom industry bible CommsDay, has for years been one of Ross’ most vocal critics. He wrote in 2013 that he’d found 50 errors in Ross’ 11,000-word NBN piece. Last night, he lashed Ross on Facebook.

“A tech journalist who in 2013 went against his employer’s editorial charter on political advocacy by admission of its own watchdog, was counselled by his line manager on his obligations to that charter, stayed willingly in his position while openly developing his own tech start-up on the side [Ross has been developing a nanopayment journalism business], then 34 months later finally resigns today and complains on Twitter that he was gagged and the victim of a conspiracy: this is an actual news story in Australia. What a fucking insult to journalists the world over who are genuine victims of incarceration, violence, ostracism and exclusion because of their craft.”

Ross’ says that since 2013, he has been “managed out” of the ABC. After the Media Watch segment in particular, he says, he was ostracised and no longer used as talent on many ABC programs in the way he had been in the past. He says many ABC websites removed links to the technology portal he ran, and so the traffic to his articles plummeted.

Last July, he says, he was told the website would have its funding cut due to lack of traffic, and he would be moved to cover technology for the business section. Ross believes the ABC was trying to get rid of him.

The ABC describes the changes differently. “After the ABC’s funding cuts last year, when it became clear that the technology portal was to be closed along with a number of other portals and web sites, Nick was invited to contribute to our business coverage, including on NBN issues,” the spokesperson said. “He declined to do so.”

The axing of the website, which came at a time of rapid change in the ABC digital offering more broadly, “reinforced everything I’d long suspected,” Ross said. “At that point, I talked to the union, got a lot of legal advice, and was told to go to Comcare”. Comcare is an agency that covers public servants who have workplace disputes.

Ross’ Comcare case, which is still ongoing, has so far been very difficult and emotionally draining, Ross says. “I was severely stressed and getting depressed as well. I’d gone through every internal system to say what was going on and get some help, and been let down.” Recently, he was offered a redundancy by the ABC, and took it.

“I love the idea of working for the ABC — the public duty aspect of it. But in reality I’m working for management … And my position was untenable.”

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