Plots and Prayers
(Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

Former PMs Rudd and Turnbull have been busy debating Rupert Murdoch’s role in their downfalls, but one thing is being overlooked: the critical need to fix the National Broadband Network. 

The former PMs can’t agree on how the conspiracy was supposed to have worked. Rudd asserted that it was opposition to the NBN wot done it; he blamed Turnbull, then-communications spokesperson, for carrying out News Corp’s bidding to protect Foxtel by neutering the NBN. Not so, said Turnbull:

Normally, the Murdochs laugh off the generalities of claims of political meddling while staying schtum on the specifics. There’s a corporate thought that public boasting (like the famous “It’s The Sun Wot Won It after the 1991 British election) only hurts the company. Power should be exercised behind the scenes.

But this time, Murdoch heir Lachlan has broken cover to deny the specifics of the Turnbull leadership spill in a detailed journalistic tick-tock in The Monthly:

These exchanges are like coded radio signals with poor reception. But listen carefully to the static and match it with other developments. 

Firstly: they help us recognise that News Corp is now Lachlan’s company, not Rupert’s. The elder Murdoch has remained largely off-air since his accident a year ago. Company management reshuffled in late 2018 and now, by and large, the leadership team are Lachlan’s people — and certainly not James’.

It’s no secret that Lachlan is close to Abbott, certainly closer than any of the Murdochs are to Turnbull. Perhaps when Rupert spoke with Turnbull during the spill he was telling the truth when he deflected to Lachlan. And now, Lachlan’s denial is an attempt by the new boss to clean up. 

But more importantly: the chatter reminded me of the need to address that great failure of public policy which is the NBN.

The Liberals’ decision to abandon the readily comprehensible “fibre to the premises” (FTTP) for the significantly less comprehensible “multi-technology mix” (MTM) has gone a long way to meet the alleged 2010 direction of then-leader Abbott to Turnbull: demolish the NBN.

Without need for conspiracy, this reveals philosophical differences between the parties: for the Liberals, the internet is a consumer good. If you want it, pay for it. For Labor, the NBN reflected the emerging international consensus that access to the internet is a public good, almost a human right.  

The decision also reflected a profound underestimation of the demand — and the potential — for broadband internet.

Rudd’s conspiracy is based on that old Latin saw: cui bono? Who benefits?

Public good it may be, but FTTP broadband was — and is — an existential threat to Foxtel. Back before Abbott’s election in 2013, it was the only significant electronic asset allocated to News Corp after the 21st Century Fox split. It was intended to provide the financial backbone of News Corp’s otherwise struggling Australian media assets.

Who would benefit from gutting the NBN? Well, News Corp. The bandwidth constraints of the MTM would give Foxtel’s robust infrastructure an unassailable edge in scope and quality.

As recently as 2017, News Corp planned to cash in on Foxtel’s value by merging the jointly-owned (with Telstra) Foxtel with the wholly owned Fox Sports, to create the 65%-owned new Foxtel and list it on the ASX. Since then, streaming services like Netflix or Stan have crashed over the top of cable services like Foxtel. With its infrastructure costs, Foxtel struggles to compete on price and its household take-up has drifted sideways. The ASX listing seems to have vanished into the ether.

So, who benefited? Ultimately, nobody. Instead, we’ve lost six years.

An incoming Labor government should be expected to move quickly to write off the unnecessary costs incurred by the MTM diversion and return to delivering the FTTP internet that the future demands.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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