‘Straight reporting’: the editor, the NBN and the ABC

The secret recording raises important ethical questions that go to the heart of editorial and news judgement. AAP/Joel Carrett

News reports containing allegations over the way the ABC has handled coverage of the National Broadband Network (NBN) raise important questions about the editorial process, and the relationship between editors and journalists.

The articles, published by news and opinion portal New Matilda and tagged with the headline “False Balance”, centre on discussions in 2013 between the ABC’s head of current affairs, Bruce Belsham, and then-ABC technology editor Nick Ross.

In a transcript of a secret recording of a confidential conversation between the pair, Belsham asks Ross to critique aspects of the ALP’s NBN plan in order to gain an “insurance policy”.

The ABC has denied allegations of “gagging”. However, the transcript raises other important ethical questions that go to the heart of editorial and news judgement more broadly. Before leaping to conclusions, it is worth considering some of the wider ethical issues at play.

Confidentiality

There is an ethical issue around the secret recording of a conversation that was, as Belsham put it, “for this room only”. Although there are no confidential sources at play in this case, this kind of breach of confidence (if not legal confidentiality) sets a risky precedent in the case of other, more sensitive newsroom discussions.

There is also a “personal counselling” aspect to the discussion, in which Ross acknowledges weaknesses in his approach of “looking at it from a scientific point of view and hiding behind facts”.

Perhaps this is why in an official response to New Matilda, a spokesman for the ABC leads with the idea that:

The ABC finds it unethical and reprehensible in the extreme that New Matilda expects a response to partial excerpts of secretly recorded conversations without the opportunity to hear and understand the full context of what was said, despite our repeated requests. These things can and will be interpreted to suit people’s agenda. The personal counselling given to Mr Ross by his manager was extensive and delivered at length over a number of conversations. At times, those exchanges used unguarded and informal language, as is commonplace in private conversations that are intended to air issues fully, frankly, robustly and in confidence.

You can read more of the ABC’s response here.

Why would the ABC need an ‘insurance policy’?

In the transcript, Belsham explains that:

… an insurance policy is an article where you are hard-headed about something to do with the NBN’s failings, or, you know, potential failings …

Where is this coming from? Against what or whom is the journalist being insured?

Is it ABC editorial policy, criticism of some recent articles, or is it to do with the relations between the ABC and the federal government? Belsham raises concerns that:

… the world, the Turnbull camp and my superiors are going to come down on me like a tonne of bricks.

The transcript gives us a rare glimpse of the subtle ways political considerations can influence and shape the work of editors and journalists on the ground. The ABC has said that the request to do a piece on Labor and the NBN “was the editorially responsible thing to do” following “an almost 11,000 word article severely criticising the then-opposition’s policy on the NBN”.

But Belsham goes further. What does he mean when he says “it’s going to be really kind of difficult for you” to publish more articles critiquing the Coalition’s plan? How does this work in terms of the ABC’s culture of independence?

Media ethics and real politik?

The transcript provides an insight into the multi-faceted relationship between the editor and a journalist on a rather specialised and politicised beat under intense scrutiny. It also gives a glimpse of the tricky the relationship between morality and politics. Ross is clearly exercised by the way parts of the media:

… just cherry-pick the facts and ignore the counter-facts that undermine it at every level.

I imagine there would be few readers who would disagree with Belsham when he encourages Ross to write:

… a proper analysis of the rollout plan in terms of time, you know, and the time, the money, you know, what, are there protestations they’re on time and on money, how credible is that?

But, in one part of the transcript, Belsham says:

I’m not talking morality here, I’m talking about real politik.

What does he mean?

‘Straight reporting’

It’s clear Belsham and Ross hold different views on the topic, and even on which are the most relevant facts. This is not a problem.

But what is worrying is how Belsham relies on phrases like “straight reporting” to discipline his journalist’s interpretations. He worries about “proselytising”:

Our job is not to step in, our job is just to reflect, it’s just to report on what happens you know … We’re not interested in, we’re not about determining the outcome or the view one way or the other, we’re just about reporting. That is the reality.

Belsham and Ross may have different ideas of a straight report. But this idea of “reflection”, in which the reporter simply relays the facts without influencing them, discounts the way the news is formed out of myriad judgements, values and decisions.

And the notion of journalism as holding a mirror to the world discounts the way that “the world” is not a simple object to report, but refracted through layers of politics, policy and technology.

On the one hand, “straight reporting” encourages a journalism devoted to facts, but it also has been used to place limits on the interpretations journalists can exercise.

The release of this transcript should not solely be an occasion for declarations of “false balance”, but remind us of the complexity of what happens between editors and journalists in the creation of news.

It would be a shame if the release of this transcript meant this kind of discussion became taboo. Editors and journalists need to have these frank debates about the line one draws between the facts and the politics that are part of the fabric of the story.