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Monday, 25 January 2016 22:14

NBN: ABC is in a mess of its own making Featured

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Journalists generally report the news but over the last week one of that tribe, Nick Ross, the former technology editor of the ABC, has become the focal point of a number of news stories.

Last week iTWire published a story by Ross written in 2013 in the run-up to the federal elections that was held back by the ABC

And if one wonders why a story that could essentially be said to be all about politics is figuring in these columns, it is because it concerns a topic that is central to all our technological needs: the NBN.

Unfortunately, given the fact that the two major political parties in Australia, Labor and the Coalition, have taken dramatically opposed paths to getting a broadband network that is operational, the NBN has sadly become more of a political than a technological issue.

Sadly, because without all the political interference, there would have been much more progress in delivering fast internet to the residents of this vast, brown land.

As reported by New Matilda, in the run-up to the 2013 election, the ABC, obsessed as it always is with so-called balance, wanted Ross, who at that stage had written a number of pieces on the NBN, and had, due to technological reasons, leaned towards a favourable view of the FttP option chosen by Labor, to jump to the other side of the fence and write something positive about the Coalition's NBN policy.

New Matilda has done several follow-up stories to its initial yarn; they are here, here, here and here. And there is apparently more to come.

The ABC is primarily at fault here for forgetting that its charter calls for balanced treatment of a subject. That can be achieved when one is dealing with myriad topics. But when it comes to technology, there is often black and white, and not so many shades of grey.

For instance, one can invite politicians from the the right and the left to give their views about education, health, immigration and so on. There is no definitive way to say that either side is completely in the right or the wrong simply because these issues are not decided on facts, but rather on emotion. Not the head, but the heart. Ideology comes first, commonsense a poor second.

But when it comes to technology, things could not be more different. For example, a laptop battery that can last seven hours is definitely better than one which lasts three hours. There is no argument, no shade of grey. It is black and white.

The NBN is not such a simple thing to compare and contrast. No two countries have the exact same needs and topology or area. Australia is unique in many ways but Canada does come close. In such a situation one makes the best judgment possible based on the available data.

Ross's articles were based on technological details. Nobody in this country has delved into the NBN in such a forensic manner as he has; in the course of doing so, he came to the opinion that a FttP network would, in the long run, be the better option for the country.

Now this just happened to be the option chosen by the Labor party.

Ross's boss, Bruce Belsham, looked at the issue from a purely political angle and asked him to write something that cast the Coalition's NBN policy in a good light, judging from a transcript of a conversation between Ross and Belsham.

In other words, Belsham was asking Ross to write something that concluded that FttN was the more suitable option for the country!

How can you argue for two sides of a debate when you have chosen one side as the better one based on technological reasons?

The problem that the ABC has is solely borne out of its own stupidity: knowing full well that it had an obligation to be impartial and non-partisan, it created sections — like The Drum — and appointed people to positions — like that to which Ross was appointed — where it was simply not possible to fulfil this charter.

The ABC lives on public money and hence its aspirations have, necessarily, to be different from those of commercial outlets. But in its rush to compete with commercial outlets it has not given even a shred of thought to conflicts — like the one that Belsham was asking Ross to resolve — which could arise.

Ross's long silence on the NBN after the glut of articles he produced before the 2013 election prompted queries. When he quit earlier this year, he claimed he had been gagged by the ABC. That is being contested by the ABC.

Given that the ABC is a national organisation and consumes nearly a billion dollars of taxpayers' money each year, it is surprising that nothing about this affair has figured in the mainstream media. The ABC itself has been silent.

But it is well to bear in mind that truth — like oil and cadavers — has a time-honoured way of floating to the surface.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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