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Jan 22, 2016

Ex-ABC journo sticks by 'gag' claim, though illegal recording sheds little light on saga

Did the ABC 'gag' its tech journo from writing about the NBN in order to keep Malcolm Turnbull onside? The journo sticks to his guns, but a recording of his conversations with editors is unclear.

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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.”

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21 comments

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21 thoughts on “Ex-ABC journo sticks by ‘gag’ claim, though illegal recording sheds little light on saga

  1. David Irving (no relation)

    This article is disingenuous. I read ross’ stuff on the NBN and, as a (recently retired) IT Professional, I can assure you he was right about Turnbull’s NBN policy. The fact that he has been silent is pretty much a confirmation that he was silenced, and his claims since he’s been let go sound pretty convincing to me.

    He’s been badly treated by the ABC, traduced by The Australian, and absolutely correct in everything he wrote.

  2. Sue Miills

    Misusing the concept of Balanced Reporting in a speech to a tech expert sure looks like gagging to me- and it ensured we were NOT properly informed prior to an election. Govt (tax-payer) funding should guarentee independance; Frank and Fearless advice should be treasured and forever insulated from the winds of profits or politics. LNP has targetted, sabotaged and destroyed so many Australian resources I’ve lost count

  3. Majora Mask

    I agree with many comments here, there is no need for ‘balance’ when one side is clearly wrong and out of touch with reality, do we have to ask IS’ point of view on the Syrian Civil War for every article, How about a Holocaust denier for every WW2 History article? This is as bad as when the ABC used to publish climate change denial articles as “balance” to actual real science.

    Also I agree with Nicholas 100%, as someone who has been the “target” of management before at a corporation, they didn’t specifically tell me they hated me and wanted me to quit (not even because of my work, but because I didn’t fit the frat boy culture they had going on), they specifically created a negative atmosphere around me and work wise gave me the most tedious, mind numbing work possible as torture (“Here’s a storeroom, count every single piece of paper for stocktake” I literally individually had to count tens of thousands of sheets of paper), I became the whipping boy of the office for several months until I decided to throw in the towl and quit.

    It’s the same with say, why studies show women get 70 cents for every dollar over a period of time in the same work as a man, actually paying them that would be illegal, but there are social structures in place that over a period of time, women simply find themselves undervalued, passed over when it comes to raises/promotions all while dealing with often a culture of subtle misogyny and sexism.

    Of course the ABC aren’t going to say “WE GAGGED YOU, YOU ARE GAGGED” they will though create tension and a work environment that is extremely stressful for Ross where he knows if he keeps criticizing the Lib NBN, he will be subject to even more tension and pressure in the work place. The Australian article and Media Watch are perfect examples of this, they made false claims and didn’t even allow him to reply. Also another thing is making him break his Journalistic integrity by forcing him to criticize largely a functional plan simply so he can criticize a plan that was based on denial of reality.

    I ask the author of this article, you believe in climate change right? Would you be fine if Crikey made you write climate change denial articles for every Climate Change article?

  4. CML

    Well said, Nicholas!
    Pleased to hear I am not the only one who thinks Myriam is trying to defend the indefensible!!

  5. Nicholas

    Myriam Robin’s piece about Nick Ross is an obtuse piece of twaddle. It irrelevantly parses the word ‘gag’ instead of addressing the substance of the issue. Who cares whether ‘gag’ is exactly the right word to describe what happened? Robin and people like her are basically arguing that unless there was an explicit declaration by an ABC manager of, “You are hereby gagged! Gagged, I say!” Nick Ross’s story has no merit. The point is that his managers were far more interested in covering their arses than covering the story of the NBN. That’s a big problem with the ABC’s culture worthy of remedial action by the next non-Coalition government. The ABC charter needs to be rewritten to emphasize that balance does not entail confecting stories to counter-balance criticism of a Coalition policy. ABC managers who shy away from stories that annoy conservatives need to be fired and replaced. Labor and the Greens need to be as aggressive at defending public broadcasting as the Coalition is at attacking it. People who do good journalism at the ABC need to know that Labor and the Greens will have their backs and that their careers are safe.

  6. Draco Houston

    Screw New Matilda if this ends up with Nick Ross in more trouble. On the face of it, even if you can’t prove ‘gagged’ in the legal sense, or even ‘bullying’, the ABC management have been pretty shitty to Mr Ross.

    “You make a good point Limited apart from the discomforting fact that there aren’t actually any facts in this article, just a conspiracy theory by an NBN activist that the ABC gagged him to please Turnbull.”
    Did you even read the article? The whole thing is about how the claims made may not be provable. In fact, did you even read the damn headline before going to the comments?

  7. ken svay

    The ABC are awful, I have followed all this for years. How much do we pay these pricks who are shit scared of Liberal governments.Alberici earns how much pretending to be brave and independent?
    The Liberal NBN is crap, I talked to a tech guy working on a node in Cairns yesterday as I do. These are the tradesmen at the coal face and they know it is all bollocks. Does David a Hand ever actually talk to those working on the thing, I doubt it. Mr Hand would not want to get his Hand dirty with the workers.

  8. Peter Murphy

    Scot put into words what I was thinking.

  9. scot mcphee

    This shows up exactly the false notion of journalistic “balance”. You can’t write an article critical of the technical aspects of the LNP psuedo-NBN without an article critical of the ALP NBN. Everything that has gone wrong with the pseudo-NBN was predicted well before the election: it’s technically worse, its roll-out is slower, and it’s more expensive, all proven in less than three years. This shows such criticism of the pseudo-NBN on both engineering and political grounds before the election was far from baseless. The only criticism that Balsam could offer was the ALP NBN was “unrealistic” because it was going to lose the election: therefore it needed to be criticised. This is pure circular thinking in the pursuit of an illusionary evenhandedness.

    If something is empirically wrong, it’s wrong. If some politician wants to insist it’s right, it’s not a debate, it’s just some politician who is an idiot who argues against reality. That should be only story.

    The ABC news & current affairs have shown themselves up as cowards.

  10. Norman Hanscombe

    If anyone needed confirmation that journalistic standards are competing with the education systems in a race to the bottom, this article and most of the subscribers who tried unsuccessfully to analyse the article provide more than enough evidence to say it’s confirmed in spades.

  11. bjb

    David Hand @ 2 – you’ve read Nick Ross’ articles ? All the citations etc ?

    To quote Patrick Moynihan “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”.

  12. AR

    Sometimes that damned dog just will not bark.

  13. zut alors

    The lack of hard evidence does not prove something never happened.

  14. Jack Robertson

    So sorry, but I just couldn’t help it. Oh dear me.

    Professional journalists whine about being secretly recorded and their quotes taken out of context. Ho ho ho ho effing ho.

    Welcome to the new communications paradigm, morons. You lot just don’t get to lay down the media rules any more. Get used to it.

  15. Jack Robertson

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!

  16. AR

    Criticism is not, and need not, be bias.

  17. David Hand

    You make a good point Limited apart from the discomforting fact that there aren’t actually any facts in this article, just a conspiracy theory by an NBN activist that the ABC gagged him to please Turnbull.

  18. The Cleaning Lady

    Requiring Ross to criticise the Labor plan is not the same as requiring articles to reflect all major points of view.

    Just saying.

  19. Limited News

    Agree with Tinson.

    “activist reporting”? What do you think Four Corners did with stories on underpayment of foreign workers, greyhound baiting and slaughter-house cruelty in Indonesia? Maybe the ABC should close down Four Corners so David Hand doesn’t have to put up with discomforting facts?

  20. David Hand

    This is a classic example of a left wing activist being asked to show some balance in his supposed expertise as a columnist on the NBN and demonstrating complete and irreversible bias.

    I’m not surprised the ABC shut him up. But it’s not about keeping Turnbull happy, as if they would fall into that trap with Tony Abbott as the incoming PM. Nope, in this case, even the ABC could see bias in it’s activist reporting.

  21. Lee Tinson

    While there may not be evidence of actual gagging at that point, it’s clear to me that there would have been, either by Belsham or by the board.

    And there had, in fact, been some gagging because the article was delayed until after the election. Also, of course, the australian published content that they should have known was false and then denied Ross a right of reply (now THAT’s what I call gagging).

    We love our ABC, Miriam, as you do. But they screwed up badly on this one. This is evidence of at least lack of courage at board level and improper behaviour towards employees by management.

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