A covert recording of a meeting between former ABC technology editor Nick Ross and ABC head of current affairs Bruce Belsham proves the ABC exec wanted Ross to write a piece, or several pieces, examining problems with Labor’s NBN policy. But the recording, excerpts of which were published last night in New Matilda, doesn’t appear to prove Ross’ claims that the ABC gagged him to keep incoming communications minister Malcolm Turnbull happy.

Ross left the ABC last week, accepting a redundancy three years after he abruptly ceased writing on the NBN for the national broadcaster. Ross’ silence followed a Media Watch episode that concluded his writing was veering close to advocacy for Labor’s NBN, and a piece in The Australian that (incorrectly) said Ross had been “disciplined” by the ABC after he wrote an 11,000-word opus that savaged the Coalition’s NBN plan. Last week, Ross explosively said he had been gagged from writing on the issue because the ABC wanted to keep the Coalition onside.

Last week, Ross told Crikey:

“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.”

The allegation is not backed up by the quotes produced from the recorded tape with Belsham. While New Matilda has not published the transcript of the entire recording, which in itself only details one of Ross’ numerous interactions with managers, Crikey understands the full recording does not include Belsham making a comment on keeping Turnbull happy. The recording is largely concerned with mapping out a potential article examining the faults in Labor’s NBN.

The parts of the recording published by New Matilda appear to show Belsham asking Ross to give him something he can then take to his own managers to justify Ross’ continued writing.

“We’ve got to give you some kind of insurance policy, you know,” Belsham says in the recording, according to New Matilda. “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. One of the quite basic failures is it’s not going to happen.”

“I like the [latest] piece, and I would like to publish it. But I’m just saying, before I can let you do that, so I don’t have screams from the 14th floor … we need to give ourselves [some insurance] and say ‘Look, this guy is prepared to be critical of some aspects of [Labor’s plan], he’s written this tough article about X.'”

The 14th floor refers to the floor at ABC Ultimo that houses managing director and editor-in-chief Mark Scott, the ABC board, and the ABC’s corporate affairs team.

Crikey pointed out to Ross this morning that the Belsham quotes in New Matilda’s piece did not support his claim that the ABC gagged him in order to keep Turnbull onside. Ross responded that the ABC had made a point about the politics at an earlier meeting, and that this was what prompted him to record a meeting with Belsham.

“On March 8 2013 I was told by [Bruce Belsham that] ABC management … were 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. I made a note of this when I left and decided to record future meetings because I didn’t want to get caught up in a conspiracy like that without protecting myself,” Ross told Crikey. The ABC last week said the only advice Ross had received about his writing was in reference to its editorial policies.

The New Matilda piece also does not explicitly support the claim that Ross was “gagged”. Belsham appears willing to publish further pieces by Ross on the NBN, provided Ross also writes pieces about Labor. But New Matilda editor and owner Chris Graham argues that “there are a thousand ways to gag a journalist”, and that requiring Ross to write articles critical of Labor’s NBN was an effective one in this situation. He notes Ross was also prevented from responding to media inquiries and the false claim that he’d been formally disciplined by the ABC. “He was gagged on that, and he’s fucking angry about it.”

The issue of the recording has drawn some comment among journalists on social media. The New South Wales Surveillance Devices Act holds it illegal to record a person in the state without their permission.

“We’ve broken the law — we know we have,” Graham told Crikey. “Our detailed legal advice is to throw ourselves at the mercy of the court. The fact is New South Wales doesn’t have a public interest defence in this for journalists or anybody else. So be it.”

New Matilda says it intends to publish the full transcript of Ross’ meeting with Belsham before Sunday. The ABC declined to comment beyond its statement to New Matilda, which slammed the website for not giving the ABC the full context of the Belsham quotes it was asked to respond to. The ABC added that Ross’ “exchanges [with Belsham] used unguarded and informal language, as is commonplace in private conversations that are intended to air issues fully, frankly, robustly and in confidence”.

“It would be a shame if all such conversations had to be conducted as if they were on the record interviews. Nevertheless, the thrust of the sentiments expressed to Mr Ross in all of the discussions held with him were consistently that, as with all other topics, coverage of the NBN issue required adherence to the ABC charter and editorial policies, which require appropriately reflecting all major points of view.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey