Advance, Australian ... Fair?

The extraordinary and escalating war of words between Stephen Conroy and The Australian newspaper raises questions about the media's impartiality in covering the NBN — and just how much we expect politicians to say the same thing, over and over again. Is The Australian on a bile-fuelled vendetta against Conroy, or was he just asking for it? We definitely want to hear your thoughts on this one.

A most extraordinary situation has arisen this week, with one of the country's major newspapers, The Australian, embarking on an apparent vendetta against Senator Stephen Conroy after he questioned the use of its stories by the members of a Senate Estimates committee inquiring into the National Broadband Network (NBN).

Reporting by The Australian has been targeted by the proponents of the NBN camp since the paper published a report claiming that householders faced thousands of dollars in expenses to wire their homes to take full advantage of the NBN. Positioned as it was on the evening before an election, the claims were quickly rebutted by Julia Gillard and others in the press, but that didn't stop them from surfacing time and again even from the likes of Malcolm Turnbull.

The claims were more firmly rebuked by NBN Co head Mike Quigley during his speech at the CommsDay Melbourne Congress last week, as were Turnbull's concerns that the NBN involved "compulsion" in pushing householders from Telstra's monopoly-owned copper network to another fixed-line monopoly.

But with critics seemingly stuck on the same issues despite vehement rebuttals, are we just retreading old ground? ... Is The Australian taking the whole thing too personally — and compromising the cause of impartial journalism?

Yet the story died hard: the claims surfaced again this week in a five-hour Senate Estimates session, causing Quigley to argue that panel members weren't interested in "hearing reality" about the situation. Meanwhile, Conroy rebuked the senators for using The Australian to inform their questioning. "You really don't want to use as your source documents, The Australian newspaper," Conroy told them.

The Australian has long been held to a right-leaning perspective, and its ongoing coverage of the NBN has certainly featured more negative stories about the project than many of its competitors: recent headlines include "Delay to NBN laws threatens home building", "States baulk at opt-out on NBN link", "NBN will need more money", "Wage blowout threat to NBN roll-out", "Chairmen table concerns over NBN analysis", "NBN bill at risk of $1bn blowout" and more.

As if one attack on the paper wasn't enough, Conroy repeated the claims during an appearance on ABC's Lateline, where he accused it of trying to "destroy the NBN in the eyes of Australians" and running a campaign of "falsehoods" to create FUD around the project (full transcript here). The paper's coverage did not meet "any journalistic balance, it doesn't meet any journalistic accountability", Conroy said.

One can see his point: almost nowhere is there mention of the tremendous anticipation for the NBN by business authorities, the entire telecommunications industry, the entire Victorian Government, and others; The Australian's posture is most definitely that the NBN is something being foisted on the country by a megalomaniac minister. Even its choice of pictures seem bent on portraying Conroy in as unfavourable a light as possible: here, he's scratching his head; here, he looks like he's choking on an olive; here, he looks like the chilli he had for lunch just started disagreeing with him, and he's scared the person next to him will have noticed. Surely, The Australian's photographers have a few more-flattering pictures? Turnbull always looks poised and confident.

(Most amusing of all, The Australian's story about the supposed cost of wiring a house for the NBN, is illustrated with a picture of a family surfing the web by their pool using a wireless connection.)

Yet the most extraordinary development came in the past day, when The Australian's editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell came out fighting against Conroy's "hissy fit". Yet Mitchell didn't stop there: "good public policy is foreign to Mr Conroy," he said, invoking the paper's work on the Building the Education Revolution program to imply that it's only doing the right and good thing with its coverage (an audio feed is available here).

Australian IT Twitter

The Australian IT's Twitter feed (Screenshot by Suzanne Tindal/ZDNet Australia)

To prove The Australian's point, the paper has today run an explosion of anti-NBN stories — including "Conroy spinning into old habits with rant", "Hidden back-up charge for fast broadband", "Few facts in $43bn broadband gamble", "Shaky roll-out on the front line", "NBN wiring could cost up to $400 a room", and "Just 1 in 10 opt to take up NBN".

Certainly, the timing is suspicious — although many of the issues the paper raises are not invalid. Certainly also, Conroy and Labor still have many questions to answer about the NBN.

But with critics seemingly stuck on the same issues despite vehement rebuttals, are we just retreading old ground? And, with a seeming total lack of consideration that the NBN could be a good thing, or that a modicum of patience is required as the project builds momentum in the wake of a tumultuous election, is The Australian taking the whole thing too personally — and compromising the cause of impartial journalism?

It's a curious situation, and likely to not be over yet.

I'm interested to hear your thoughts, in both directions. Has The Australian's coverage swayed your opinion about the NBN? Are they being too harsh on the whole thing? Are there political motivations behind the coverage? Are the NBN's critics incapable of softening their position even when confronted with facts? And should The Australian be giving equal coverage to positive NBN stories as well as negative ones?

Or is The Australian just fighting the noble fight in the face of rampant NBN-washing by everybody else? Is the whole thing just a big left-wing rort? Are other publications too biased in support of the NBN? And was Conroy asking for it by engaging the paper in a war of words? Grab a cup of coffee, sit back and compose your thoughts before sharing them below.

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