Friday, May 01, 2015

A lesson in journalism

Items in today's AFR linking Senate obstruction and firms investing offshore is a classic example of how trying to craft an enticing lede can wind up misrepresenting the actual story.

Today's AFR has a story today that in the print edition "ran off the front" under the heading Innovators pushed offshore, says Thodey.  The story itself inside the paper (page 13) was headed 'Frustrating' Senate holds back innovation: Thodey.

The online version of the story had a heading more in keeping with the front page heading Telstra boss David Thodey says Australia is losing innovation to Singapore.

The front page lead began:

Telstra chief executive David Thodey said Australian companies are investing in more welcoming countries like Singapore because of the federal government's failure to foster innovation.

The full story and the online version actually started:

Telstra's outgoing chief executive David Thodey says Australian companies are choosing to invest overseas in more welcoming jurisdictions like Singapore because of the federal government's inability to pass reforms that foster innovation.

The problem for the story is that there is no evidence anywhere that Thodey linked the Senate issues to the innovation issues.

In particular the article quotes Thodey as saying:

When you have an elected government who is unable to get policy through because of the Senate, there is something inherently wrong, I think it's a real issue for the country because we need to have good fiscal management. I have sympathy for the government but I think they have to keep at it.

The AFR conveniently also ran an edited extract of the actual interview. In that the full quote on the Senate read (The parts in bold are the ones repeated in the actual article).:

I think anyone that looks at it, any Australian would say it is frustrating when you have an elected government who is unable to get policy through because of the Senate, there is something inherently wrong. So it is frustrating, but it is what it is. I can't change that. So we get on with life and go and do something else. I can't change the structure of the senate and that is fundamentally where it is at. Do I get frustrated that there isn't more opportunity to discuss real policy reform and really get on with the job rather than cheap shots going back and forward because the senate is finely balanced institution at the moment? However that is the political system and I can't change that so I can only work on what is that I can control. Yeah, I think it is a real issue for the country, we need to have good fiscal management.

There is nothing in those words that link the Senate issue on fiscal management to innovation policy.

On innovation the article quotes Thodey as saying (edited from original to put in speech and remove some matter):

Australia's lack of an overarching innovation program had already encouraged Telstra to shift some resources abroad. What do I do about that? I just get on and do it inside Telstra and open Muru-D in Singapore – that's what I do,

Ultimately, yes I do think [we will fall behind] and I don't think it's purely about the tax treatment of startups in terms of share options. It's about … where we believe our future value will come from and it will be around enabling people to be creative and innovative. It's not just science and technology; it's about every business like BHP, celebrating the [biotechnology company] CSLs.

I am still trying to innovate here with e-health, if we can get the information flow going better there between pharmacists and doctors and hospitals that's really game changing,. But yes, we will all just start to flow where that is appreciated and recognised. I would not ever say it as a threat because life is not like that. I see it as an opportunity to really provide people the vision and opportunity so people can get on with it.

Improving tax regulations for startups, boosting employee share schemes and allowing more crowd-funding systems were vital for helping creativity and innovation thrive.

Unfortunately none of this appears in the edited extract. But once again there is no link here between the Senate issue and the lack of an innovation agenda from the Government.

I have absolutely no idea where in the creation of the story the link was made between Thodey's distinct observations that he thought the government not getting legislation through the Senate was frustrating and that the government was not encouraging innovation.

I suspect it was made at a editorial level in an attempt to give the story bite. The AFR has run a number of articles recently effectively on the theme of the business community deciding it is their job to lecture Senators on a theory that their job is to just pass the Government's program.

But in this case it is not merely inaccurate, it results in a very inaccurate description of reality.

In particular David Thodey in the interview excerpt said:

Do I get frustrated that there isn't more opportunity to discuss real policy reform and really get on with the job rather than cheap shots going back and forward.
And that is the truly fascinating part because the place where discussion of real policy reform in support of innovation is going on is in the Senate inquiry into Australia's Innovation System. Telstra's submission made quite detailed recommendations for an innovative Australia, being:

1. Develop a National Vision to support innovation, and support the establishment of a National Innovation Council. 
2. Invest in education and skills 
a. Ensure appropriately trained STEM teachers are available to engage and educate students at a primary, secondary and tertiary level so that they can contribute to the next generation of Australian innovations 
b. Skills – support for visas for overseas innovators. 
3. Provide a base level of government funding for research organisations to undertake fundamental research and to enable them to then partner with industry. 
4. Ensure government policy supports innovation: 
a. Reforms to allow startups to offer tax-effective employee share schemes 
b. Maintain R&D tax incentives for all Australian companies 
c. Maintain regulatory certainty to support innovation 
d. Support for modernisation of the Intellectual Property (IP) system. 
5. Finance innovation effectively – encourage the private sector to provide funding beyond the start-up stage and develop a better functioning venture capital system. 
6. Lead by example – ensure government’s own operations and actions support innovation: 
a. Implement the Commission of Audit’s recommendations 
b. Develop a Digital First approach for each agency 
c. Leverage government’s power as a purchaser to support innovative solutions that reduce costs and deliver better services to the community.

It is disappointing that someone's desire to get a story about "Senate obstruction" blunted Thodey's message about in action on innovation. The culprit isn't the Senate, it is the Government.

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