You may remember last month the IPA inadvertently exposed a Department of Broadband and Communications plot to place ghost-written pro-NBN propaganda in the media.
Senator Simon Birmingham followed up in Senate estimates this week, which resulted in this story in The Australian on Wednesday ($):
“This follows revelations that the department’s media team also sent an article to the Institute of Public Affairs Review’s editor James Paterson offering a “meticulously researched” article “gratis” — and suggesting the article run under the byline of one of the review’s journalists.
The department’s acting deputy secretary, Ian Robinson, said the email sent to Mr Paterson had been a mistake but he confirmed the public figures recruited by the government to trumpet the NBN have also been offered articles to run under their own names.”
The transcript of the Senate committee hearing is now available, and includes this amusing comment from Stephen Conroy on the quality of articles in the IPA Review!:
Senator BIRMINGHAM: It was sent by Mr Dennis Godfrey, a senior communication adviser in the Media and Public Affairs Communication Branch in the department on 7 September at 10.51 am to James Paterson. It said:
I have just written an article about how the National Broadband Network currently being rolled out across Australia will in many ways be of particular interest to women.
It is meticulously researched and would be quite gratis—no fee of course.
Please let me now if you are interested. I’d be happy to send it to you for consideration.
Senator Conroy: It would make a huge improvement on the rubbish they normally print but, as I have said publicly—
Read more of the exchange below:
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Mr Robinson, are you suggesting that this is the only incident, that this one email was sent to Mr Paterson and that this is the only occasion this practice has occurred? Or was this article sent to multiple commentators?
Mr Robinson: We do draft articles under the department’s name, and some have been published under the department’s name. We have drafted articles that have gone under our ‘Broadband champions’ name. We have provided background material in the past about programs. That is the only example, as far as we can tell, where the officer effectively said, ‘Here is an article which you can put under your name,’ to a journalist. We have checked. It is not our practice. It was bad practice. In retrospect, that officer says he just worded his email very badly. We have checked and we cannot find any other examples.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Is James Paterson the only person he sent it to?
Mr Robinson: That is my understanding.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Did you ask Mr Godfrey how it came to be in this bad practice that, of all the people in Australia, he chose someone from the IPA?
Senator Conroy: That thought did occur to me, Senator.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: This is why I find it rather remarkable to believe this is a solo incident when someone who seems perhaps not an obvious target for such communications was the recipient of it.
Senator Conroy: I am glad you concede that.
Mr Robinson: It was certainly not obvious. It was a mistake—it really was a mistake.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Have email records been checked or anything else been assessed?
Mr Robinson: Yes.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Or is it just—
Mr Robinson: They have.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: They have?
Mr Harris: Email records have been checked.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Of Mr Godfrey obviously. Of others in the media and public affairs part of the communications branch?
Mr Harris: The communications area generally.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: And so no other instances were turned up of this nature from those checks. Did Mr Godfrey explain how he came to target Mr Paterson?
Mr Robinson: We have had discussions with him. It is just a mistake really. It was not his intention to write the email like he did, but that is what happened. We have in fact put on hold whenever the date of that incident is.
Senator Conroy: You could say, ‘Sorry, Simon, I forgot to change my name off it from your press release.’ These things happen.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Very droll, Minister. Stop interrupting the witness, though, please.
Mr Robinson: Since then we have not actually issued any articles until we make sure our procedures are right.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: So you indicated that you draft articles for the department’s name.
Senator Conroy interjecting—
Senator BIRMINGHAM: You draft articles for—I think it is safe to say Mr Kerr writes far better than I do, Minister.
Senator Conroy: That could be true, but some day we might find out.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: You draft articles for broadband champions and background material, which I assume is material provided to the minister and to whoever else might need background material. Perhaps you could explain to me the articles you draft for broadband champions and how many of those are drafted. I assume they are of a similar ilk to this amazingly solo incident that just happened to go to Mr Paterson of the IPA.
Senator Conroy: I think we provide secretarial and a whole range of services to support our national broadband champions.
Mr Harris: I think what Mr Robinson is trying to indicate is when the broadband champions put out information to the sorts of sectors where their name is well known, they will seek from us data, up-to-date information, on for example rollout numbers, a particular aspect that might be relevant to small business and that sort of thing. We will send them back an information pack or dataset that may be relevant to what they are developing.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: That is not what Mr Robinson said, Mr Harris; Mr Robinson said that you draft articles under the department’s name for the broadband champions and provide background material.
Mr Harris: I would call that background material. We are debating the nature of the descriptors—that is our version of what we call background material.
Senator BIRMINGHAM: Has the department drafted articles for broadband champions that have been reproduced in their names?
Mr Harris: We have, yes.