Reporting the NBN right

The fact that both sides of politics are irritated with NBN cheerleaders shows that the media needs to keep them both honest.

George Orwell once said “journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

Last week was a clearly a win for hacks as both NBN Co and the Federal opposition took swipes at reporters covering the rollout of the National Broadband Network.

At the Sydney leg of the Broadband Realised conference on Thursday Mike Kaiser, NBNCo’s Chief of Quality, rounded on the media for being out of touch with the realities of the project.

Kaiser opened his conference presentation by saying “I want to speak openly and frankly about the progress of this project and get some quality information out there about how the project is progressing and hopefully rely less over time on the popular media.”

Earlier that day opposition telecommunications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull criticised the Australian tech media for their reporting of the NBN, telling the Innovation Bay breakfast that “there is a sort of cheerleader approach to the NBN which is actively, actively misleading people.”

Malcolm Turnbull’s speech criticised Australia’s tech media for the calibre of reporting international trends around broadband issues. Given we know he reads this website, having written a response to Alan Kohler’s recent NBN criticism, it’s surprising he missed stories on this site comparing the project to Google FiberAT&T’s Project VIP and the attitude of Silicon Valley's entrepreneurs to fibre rollouts

This isn’t the first time a senior politician has criticised the media for the quality the NBN reportage. At the launch of the NBN’s revised corporate plan last August, Communications minister, Senator Conroy said, “I have to think if Malcolm Turnbull put out a press release saying cost blow out in the NBN due to earth being flat it would probably lead the front page of the Fin Review.”

At the time Turnbull accused the Minister of descending “further and further into the pit of paranoia,” adding “anyone who disagrees with him is engaged in a vendetta.”

If three’s a crowd, one hopes that Mike Kaiser won’t be joining Turnbull and Conroy at the bottom of the pit of paranoia.

Mythmaking and spin 

Kaiser, Conroy and Turnbull do have a fair point about the state of debate around the NBN project with myths and spin taking the place of informed discussion, although much of this is driven by misinformation passed around by the scheme’s supporters and opponents.

Chief among these myths is the idea that wireless technology will soon supersede fibre speeds, rendering the NBN outdated before it’s completed. This overlooks similar advances in fibre technology along with displaying an ignorance of basic physics.

This ignorance is also shared by the NBNs most passionate supporters who deride alternatives to fibre by saying their technology moves at the speed of light. Sadly for them, all telecommunications technologies, from Morse Code onwards, move at the speed of light. One could even argue smoke signals share that feature.

Both sides exhibit traits of an internet tribe known well to tech writers – the fanboi. While the ‘popular media’ so disdained by Mike Kaiser focuses on hackers and more recently trolls, the fanbois vastly outnumber both.

Fanbois have an unshakeable belief in their technology and act quickly to defend its honour. The novice tech writer quickly learns that incurring the ire of Apple, Microsoft or Open Source fanbois is a guaranteed way to have one’s integrity, intelligence and fatherhood questioned.

It also guarantees page views so the canny tech journalist tries to upset as many fanbois as possible, preferably in 300 words or less. There are some online publications that have little other purpose than upsetting fanbois, which pleases editors and advertisers while keeping geeks off both the streets and the file sharing torrents.

A legacy of mistakes

Legitimate criticism is what irritates fanbois the most and this is true when discussing the NBN. Both the opposition and the government are being irritated by commentary that point out their failings in communication policy.

There have been plenty of failings; the NBN itself is the result of twenty years of poor Federal government policies starting with Hawke’s merging of OTC and Telecom to placate the unions, Keating’s sop to the media moguls which resulted in the botched pay-TV rollout and Howard’s obsession with privatising Telstra that threatened to leave most Australians with slow and outdated internet connections.

Much of the Liberal Party’s half pregnant and half baked proposals seem to hark back to the Howard days of throwing increasingly large sums of money at key constituencies left behind by these policy failures.

While the NBN is an ambitious project to fix the mistakes of his Liberal and Labor predecessors, Senator Conroy’s solution is struggling with the execution.

The project is undeniably running late; while NBNCo’s management claim the delays are due to slow ACCC approvals, protracted negotiations with Telstra or poor mapping data, these ‘dog ate my homework’ excuses are beginning to run thin.

A major problem is the poor progress in the “greenfield estates”, new housing developments where copper phone lines haven’t been connected. The residents of these areas know well the limitations of wireless internet and it’s surprising how slow NBN Co has been in meeting the needs of these locations.

Getting things right

That the media is being criticised by both sides for holding them to account on their mis-steps shows Australia’s tech press is largely getting things right, although some individual journalists could be accused of being too partisan in their reporting, but that too is the sign of a diverse range of commentary.

What does unite most writers is the need for a properly planned network. In his Innovation Bay speech, Turnbull said “we the Coalition see ubiquitous, affordable, very fast broadband as a bedrock requirement for a successful digital economy. And a successful economy, full stop.”

Everyone in the tech media agrees with him, as does Senator Conroy, but only fair and rigorous scrutiny by the media of both sides policies and actions will guarantee the nation gets 21st century infrastructure at a price the country can afford. Even if the politicians don’t like it, the taxpayer should be happy all sides are being held to account by the press.