The Federal government has refused to release details about $30 million in sports broadcasting funding given to News Corporation’s Fox Sports.
This year’s federal budget includes a measure worth $30 million over four years to “support the broadcast of underrepresented sports on subscription television, including women’s sports, niche sports, and sports with a high level of community involvement and participation”.
A Freedom of Information (FOI) request filed by ABC Radio Melbourne’s Mornings program, seeking correspondence between Foxtel and the department, was declined on the basis of no such documents existing.
In declining access, the Legal Director for the Department of Communications and the Arts “refuse(d) access to the requested documents under subsection 24A(1) of the FOI Act, as I am satisfied that documents falling within the scope of your request do not exist”.
Communications Minister Mitch Fifield declined to comment.
But a statement from his office said the decision was made by the government as part of the budget process, and the FOI decision was made independently of him.
Foxtel has declined to comment.
Shareholder activist and journalist Stephen Mayne described the deal and lack of available documents as a “remarkable situation”.
“My best guess would be that because the free-to-air networks were all getting a licence fee cut in the budget and the Government wants to keep sweet with all of the media, that they didn’t want to have an enemy in the Murdochs,” he said.
“So they just gave them $30 million and then had to come up with a reason so they’ve come up with this particular reason.”
In May, Senator Fifield and the department’s Richard Eccles were questioned about the deal during a Senate estimates hearing.
Senator Chisholm: “So it is just Fox Sports you are dealing with?”
Mr Eccles: “That is right.”
Senator Chisholm: “So there is no other—it is just $30 million to them? That is it?”
Mr Eccles: “That is right.”
Senator Chisholm: “How was that determined?”
Mr Eccles: “Ultimately it was a decision of government as part of the broader broadcast reform package.”
Senator Chisholm: “So, Minister, you just made the call that we will give $30 million to Fox to do this?”
Senator Fifield: “It was a decision of government in the context of the overall media package.”
Senator Chisholm asked why the money was not given to free-to-air broadcasters, given the aim was to increase the reach of such sports.
Senator Fifield remarked the initiative could in fact increase the number of subscriptions, and he insisted there was not a direct correlation between access to free-to-air and viewership.
“Will you review this, what is a disgraceful decision, to enable more Australians to see these niche and women’s sports?” Senator Chisholm asked.
“The Government has made its decision,” Senator Fifield responded.
Louise Evans from Women Sport Australia, a non-profit organisation that advocates for women and girls in sport, said there were unanswered questions about the deal.
“We’d like to know what the deal is. Surely there’s got to be some guidelines, some terms and conditions around that, some deliverables, and at the moment we’re just in the dark as to what those are.
“This is $30 million of taxpayers’ money so I think the public would also like to know what the terms and conditions around this deal are.
“Women Sport Australia would really like to see Foxtel perhaps delve into putting more women’s basketball and more women’s soccer, football, on television — the W-League and the WNBL could certainly do with a boost in broadcast terms.”
Labor’s communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland said it was clear the “package is not based on evidence, has little substance, and contains no real vision for the future of Australian media”.
“The Australian media industry has been waiting over four years for meaningful reform, but all Mitch Fifield is capable of is poorly planned political deals and trade-offs,” Ms Rowland said.