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The human antipode strikes again

Just because a series of words is said or written in order, doesn't mean they convey the whole truth of the situation.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

Noted movie reviewer Roger Ebert has reviewed thousands of movies, but few have had the dubious honour of being given a rating of zero stars like The Human Centipede. Despite the rating, one wonders whether the movie's desperate marketers would have seized upon a part in his review where he calls it "a thrill ride", and then used it to promote a depraved film that has become a cult classic.

Putting those words into a review, of course, makes it sound like it's actually worth seeing — although there's a different meaning if you read the entire sentence and its predecessor: "[director] Six has now made a film deliberately intended to inspire incredulity, nausea and hopefully outrage. It's being booked as a midnight movie, and is it ever. Boozy fanboys will treat it like a thrill ride."

Doesn't sound so good now, does it? This is the importance of context — and why, when one is trying to discredit the argument of a philosophical opponent with integrity, one should refrain from quoting choice bits just because a few words support one's point.


If this centipede had considered its context better, it might not have become lunch. (European roller image by Christian Svane, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sadly, out-of-context quotations have been all too common in the NBN debate. Many participants have proved willing to selectively quote facts in a seeming effort to bend the reality of communications to suit their own vision for the future.

Witness the latest from Shadow Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy Malcolm Turnbull, who decided that he would do some selective quoting, grasping onto a Stephen Conroy interview in which the communications minister said that Fibre to the Node (FttN) "would be quicker and will cost less to build".

This statement has the factual weight of saying, with an air of authority, that two-minute noodles are cheaper than a nice truffle fettuccine carbonara. Turnbull rushed out a press release that seized upon this one phrase, then worked to portray it as a tacit admission that what Labor is doing is an over-expensive, over-engineered disaster in the making. Its overall tone was that of a schoolboy prank, like the one where the class joker tells you to spell out ICUP and then cracks up laughing when you say the last letter.

If Turnbull were to read that previous paragraph, he might even consider quoting me as saying that "what Labor is doing is an over-expensive, over-engineered disaster in the making", whilst ignoring the rest of the words. This sort of selective quoting is incredibly disingenuous, because it ignores the whole context in which the statement was made — and it dismisses elements that are incredibly important to understanding what has actually been said.

Selective quoting is incredibly disingenuous, because it ignores the whole context in which the statement was made.

It's no more legitimate or sincere a mechanism for driving public debate than if Conroy were to scan through Turnbull's statement and quote him as saying "Labor's NBN policy provided value for money". Turnbull did write those words — they're right there, in the last bullet point of his press release — but he definitely didn't mean them that way.

How do I know this? Because of context, of course.

Ignoring context is an incredibly counterproductive strategy, because it implies that politicians treat their constituencies with contempt. "I don't believe you are smart enough to really understand this issue," seems to be the message, "so I will twist it and hope that you don't notice my deception. And, by the way, vote for me."

Within the relatively rarefied arena of informed telecommunications-industry debate, Turnbull's comments were received with what has become a regular and almost palpable air of derision. Commentators note that Turnbull is weighing the NBN exclusively on its cost, and not on its future potential; that FttN is a short-term and inexpensive fix that will eventually need to be replaced with fibre; that the Coalition's belief that FttN can be implemented at all, will depend on a sort of kindness and generosity that Telstra has never shown in the past.

Turnbull is, naturally, promoting his own policy platform, and that can be expected. But behind his dogmatic public statements, there seems to be a quiet confidence in his ability to easily subjugate Telstra — forcing it to hand over its copper network for free after it has spent the last 15 years jealously guarding that network from its rivals, like Scrooge with his diamonds and gold.

Telstra CEO David Thodey must be getting tingles of excitement as he contemplates Telstra being back in the driver's seat under a coalition government that is already angling to utilise Telstra's soon-to-be-deprecated copper network. But of course he would: the mission statement of the Telstra board is to extract financial value from Telstra's assets, and the copper network is proving to be a tidy earner indeed.

Here, after all, is a network that Telstra has admitted will have zero value within a decade — but it's being floated as the linchpin of a coalition broadband plan that would return control over the local loop to Telstra, and return us to the anti-competitive environment of the past years.

If there's a change of government, I wouldn't bet on Telstra playing easy to get.

Turnbull may have got signals from Thodey that he will play along with the Coalition's questionable FttN strategy; indeed, Thodey's recent shareholder appearance suggested as much. Yet, while Turnbull continues referring to his FttN plan as though it would be easy to organise — and minimises the depth or content of Telstra negotiations that he seems to feel will be as complex as saying "can we please have your entire network?", the reality is nowhere near as simple.

If there's a change of government, I wouldn't bet on Telstra playing easy to get. After all, Telstra has always been about maintaining and controlling the status quo — and no matter how this plays out, Telstra will win. If it has been able to get $11 billion from the government just to use its physical network, how much will it charge Turnbull to buy the whole thing?

And how did we get back to the point where we are even discussing that possibility?

If he's worth his salt as a communications spokesperson, Turnbull is well acquainted internally with those complexities, and in any other situation would be worried by them. But as the Labor Party teeters from one disaster to another like a drunken sailor who has tripped over and got himself wrapped in strands of Christmas lights, Turnbull knows he doesn't have to come up with real details about his NBN alternative, or real solutions. He can just totter his way through the election, taking pot shots at a Labor government that just cannot seem to maintain its balance.

The NBN is being built in the context of a fractious, divisive and negativity-at-all-costs political environment...

Here, again, is context: the current political situation means that Turnbull, or his likely replacement Paul Fletcher, can do next to nothing to elaborate a policy alternative to the massive, well-constructed and steadily speeding NBN roll-out, and still be perceived by the dyed-in-the-wool coalition faithful as being a telecommunications visionary. It doesn't matter how good the NBN is or isn't; it is being built in the context of a fractious, divisive and negativity-at-all-costs political environment, where truth is less compelling than selectively informed potshots.

No matter its technical excellence or relevance, a 2013 election victory will see the NBN become a casualty of the Coalition's vague alternative NBN policy, which still has not been spelled out in anything resembling acceptable detail.

In that sense, there is no need for Turnbull to put his or Conroy's statements in context; any succession of words will be reliably extracted, put on display and trumpeted to the public as complete and undisputed truth. And while those in the industry may instantly recognise and dismiss such subterfuge out of hand, those in the broader public may well respond to this kind of misinformation. It will only be after the election, when the hangover kicks in, and all concerned realise that the context has been irretrievably changed for the worse, that many will wish that they had looked beyond the press bites.

What do you think? Did Conroy really shoot his own argument in the foot, as Turnbull alleges? Or is Turnbull selectively misquoting him in the hope that constituents won't know any better? And are we dreaming if we expect integrity in this debate?

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