Foxtel has been given a blank sheet for choosing how to spend a $10 million federal government grant and does not need to submit anything about it until 2021, documents reveal.
The documents, obtained under a Freedom of Information request, show the federal Communications Department gave Foxtel free rein to allocate millions of dollars of taxpayer money granted to broadcast under-represented sports.
“The grantee will prepare a ‘re-establishment and acceleration plan’ for 2020-21 and provide the proposed … plan to the Commonwealth,” emails from inside the department to Communications Department assistant secretary Mike Makin reveal.
“The form and structure of the ‘re-establishment and acceleration plan’ will be a matter for the grantee.”
Emails suggest what is required, such as the need to list the sports Foxtel pays for and plays, but no actual plan has been written down, and Foxtel will not need to hand one in until 2021.
“The plan is not due to be submitted until 2021 so does not yet exist,” Mr Makin wrote in a letter giving access to three email chains.
Mr Makin was the sender or recipient of all the emails released. He was also the officer authorised to decide what was released or censored from inside the department.
Foxtel denies that variations to the contract, revealed in the FOI documents, let it write its own rules.
“These are contained in the grant agreement. We determine the form and structure of the report (i.e. there is no template),” Foxtel chief communications officer Paul Edwards wrote in response to questions.
The agreement with the government insists Foxtel must produce a ‘strategic roadmap’ each year.
It has never been published, although the broadcaster said it showed more than 4888 hours of sports during the 2019/20 financial year, beating an unknown target by 5 per cent.
“While the form and structure of the re-establishment and acceleration plan is a matter for Fox Sports, the minimum inclusions required in the report are clearly outlined in the grant agreement. All of our strategic roadmaps and plans are subject to acceptance by the Commonwealth before any grant monies are released,” Mr Edwards added.
FOI documents previously unearthed by the ABC highlighted the speed with which the grant was delivered as departmental staff expedited approvals.
Funding for Foxtel worth $17.5 million was created or brought forward after the organisation was initially snubbed when other media groups received support packages at the start of the COVID pandemic.
Sports Minister Richard Colbeck steps in
The documents come after Minister for Youth and Sport, Richard Colbeck, personally intervened to block documents from his office about the controversial grant.
Senator Colbeck is also the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians and was under fire in 2020 over the aged care sector’s response to the pandemic.
The overwhelming majority of the nation’s 907 coronavirus fatalities have been aged care residents, and a special report of the aged care royal commission found the federal government’s actions were “insufficient” to ensure the sector was prepared.
Despite those pressing concerns, on September 30, Senator Colbeck wrote and signed a letter preventing the release of two documents relating to the grant.
“I am authorised … to make decisions in relation to Freedom of Information requests,” he wrote.
“I have decided to redact certain personal and business information from the documents.”
The $10 million grant is an extension of a $30 million program that has been controversial since it was announced through a single line in the 2017 budget.
Fox Sports is available only by paying a subscription to Foxtel, meaning taxpayers must pay to watch the sports they are already paying to broadcast.
Taxpayers are also paying Foxtel for sport in a third way. Speaking at a Senate committee hearing, ABC managing director David Anderson said the public broadcaster was trying to cover more women’s sport, but that it was “reasonably expensive” to cover whole seasons of certain sports.
Instead, the ABC has paid Foxtel so it can broadcast international matches played by the Matildas football team.
“There is some cost attached,” he said.
Questioned at the same October 21 hearing, a department spokesman was unable to say whether the Matildas games were already paid for by the $40 million grant from the taxpayer, with Foxtel then being paid again by the taxpayer-funded ABC to access and broadcast them.
Plan for a plan
Emails from inside the Communications Department show the process for allowing Foxtel to make its own decisions about spending taxpayer funds.
“I can see that you have a meeting with Fox Sports today,” an unnamed staff member wrote to Mr Makin on August 6.
“Some of it [such as deliverable dates] will need updating as things have progressed since late June.”
Less than a week later, a staff member emailed Mr Makin with some suggested dot points to put to the company.
“If you are happy with this requirement for the [plan] then I suggest an email be sent to Foxtel along the following lines,” it read.
Shortly afterwards, Mr Makin sent almost identical points to Foxtel.
“Thank you both for meeting with [REDACTED] and I last Thursday to discuss finalising the variation to the grant for women’s, niche and under-represented sports,” he wrote.
After a federal government support package snubbed Foxtel and rewarded some of its rivals, Communications Department staff helped fast track $17.5 million in taxpayer funds for the company, smashing normal federal Cabinet processes for approval.
Foxtel received an early payment of $7.5 million in government grants for sports coverage, plus an additional $10 million grant.
The decision was fast-tracked through Cabinet breaking the normal “10-day rule” intended to give ministers time to assess proposals
Hundreds of pages of documents from the offices of the Prime Minister, Communications Minister and Foxtel – including personal emails, letters and cabinet submissions obtained through FOI – reveal the speed with which the broadcaster was awarded a $10 million extension to the existing $30 million contract.
Neither payment made to the company, which is majority owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation (65 per cent) and part-owned by Telstra (35 per cent), were ever put out to any form of competitive tender.
The new documents add to what we know about extensive communications between the offices of the Prime Minister and Communications Minister.
A previous application was partly refused by Mr Fletcher’s chief of staff Ryan Bloxsom because, he wrote, if emails between the offices became public it could harm their working relationship “now and into the future”.
Greens say emails show little concern for value
The Communications Department said the company was not given discretion on the details of what it is required to report on, despite the emails from one of its most senior members stating that it did.
A spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications said in a statement Foxtel was only provided flexibility on how it presented information it was required to report on.
“Fox Sports, like any recipient under a Commonwealth grant, are not able to ‘write its own rules for spending the money’, and must comply with standard performance milestones and reporting requirements,” the spokesperson said.
“The varied agreement clearly sets out the Commonwealth’s requirements in relation to delivering the extended under-represented sports program … This plan is due to be submitted to the Department in January 2021.”
Greens spokesperson for media and communications Senator Sarah Hanson-Young has followed the controversial grant since its inception.
“It appears that the government has given Foxtel a blank cheque,” she said.
“First it was $30 million, now it’s $40 million, with the extra $10 million dressed up as part of the government’s ‘COVID measures’. A nice deal if you can get it. This is taxpayer’s money, and yet these emails show that very little concern for how the money would be spent or what value the public would get.”
How you know about this
The documents used in this article were obtained using the FOI process, designed to give taxpayers access to the inner workings of government departments.
They were prised from the public service over a period of months and have been heavily redacted.
Some pages are almost entirely completely blanked out.
Accessing the documents from Senator Colbeck’s office involved paying $166 to compensate for the time it took staff assess them.