JobKeeper: Half a billion reasons why the media industry owes Scott Morrison

Southern Cross Austereo dug deepest into public coffers during Covid, analysis by Unmade suggests

Welcome to Unmade, written in the UK, early on Monday morning Australian time.

Today’s writing soundtrack: the BBC / ABC radio coverage of the Australia - New Zealand T20 World Cup cricket final. For those who stayed up into the wee small hours, I salute (and congratulate) you. I suspect it was a lot less hard going to be listening during my Sunday afternoon.

Happy Steve Irwin Day.

Today: The JobKeeper winners; and the Coalition loses a round in its ongoing battle with ABC.

Finders, JobKeepers

As the market was closing on Friday, Seven West Media became the last of the Australian headquartered ASX media companies to publish its JobKeeper numbers.

The JobKeeper disclosures became mandatory as part of a compromise during a failed push to force companies to give back the money if they did not need it after all.

As a result, we now know the identities of the biggest claimants in the media and marketing world, or those of them on the ASX anyhow. My homework yesterday was crunching the numbers, and I’ve put them in a table below.

For the most part I’ve not been a fan of some of the special favours Australian media has received from the government over the years. Australia’s TV and radio companies in particular should be paying far more the the privilege of accessing the valuable and limited broadcast spectrum.

However, I do believe that JobKeeper was a good policy. It saved jobs, not just in the media sector, but across the economy more widely.

In the very short time available, it was cleverly designed to incentivise companies to keep staff on their books at a moment when the entire economy was teetering. When companies were making tough decisions in the midst of the worst black swan event in two decades, JobKeeper tipped the balance in many companies deciding to keep staff on their books. It subsidised wages by $1,500 per fortnight, per employee.

Just as Labor staved off recession by going early and hard in the early days of the GFC, the Coalition’s JobKeeper achieved the same thing during the Covid crisis. If the cash came with the caveat that it might have to be given back later, some companies might have decided it was all too hard and simply laid off staff. The risk of overpaying was better than the alternative.

Nonetheless, a few companies voluntarily chose to hand some money back when their revenues fell less than they expected. It wasn’t a bad PR move.

With Seven’s disclosure on Friday, just about every media and marketing company listed on the ASX has now shared their JobKeeper data. I presume the reason that News Corp does not appear to have done so yet is because of its dual New York - Australian listing.

Last week, News Corp’s local accounts were submitted to ASIC. That starts a 60 day clock on its disclosure.

Although many of the companies had already disclosed their Job Keeper payments in their last two years of financial accounts, the new releases are in a useful standardised format that make them easier to compare. They cover how much the companies claimed in each of the two financial years of FY20 and FY21, and whether they chose to make any voluntary repayments. They also set out how many employees were covered.

With the caveat that News Corp’s numbers are absent, this table is the full list of ASX media and marketing companies as it stands:

As you’ll see from the table above, only three companies in the media and marketing sector chose to return any money.

Nine, and its majority owned real estate platform Domain, both made claims, and then gave some of the money back. Nine hung on to most of the $6.7m it claimed in the first months of the pandemic, but gave back most of the $8.2m it initially claimed in the second phase.

It’s worth noting that because the disclosure rules say that companies must also disclose the payments to subsidiaries, the Nine disclosure effectively doubles up the information in the Domain disclosure.

REA Group, majority owned by News Corp, was the only ASX media company to give back every dollar that it claimed across both financial years.

I’ve also crunched the numbers on which company ended up claiming the most over the two years. Repeating the caveat that this might change once the News Corp data becomes available, the company that claimed the largest subsidy was Southern Cross Austereo, which saw both its radio and TV businesses hit by severe advertising downturns.

SCA accepted $47.4m in public money, and kept it all.

Seven West Media, which also kept all the money, was just behind on $47m.

Ooh Media, in the hard-hit outdoor advertising sector, was next on $17.7m.

HT&E, owner of Australian Radio Network, claimed $10.7m over the two years.

Regional TV company Prime, which is about to be taken over by Seven West Media, was next on $6.4m.

Although it’s highly likely that the non-ASX listed media companies like WIN Corporation, Australian Community Media, Grant Broadcasters, Nova Entertainment and QMS also made big claims, their data is not available.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the government also created a $50m public interest news gathering fund, and offered $40m in extra tax concessions for broadcasters.

With $137m already on the record, News Corp’s numbers still to come, and the unlisted companies numbers unavailable, support for the media sector amounted to more than half a billion dollars.

A lot of media owners have a lot to be grateful to prime minister Scott Morrison for.

Ita strikes back

In recent weeks, I’ve found myself increasingly feeling that there was a story that I missed. The job being done by ABC news director Gaven Morris never made it to the front of my consciousness until late in the day.

Since the bloody exit of managing director Michelle Guthrie and chairman Justine Milne in 2018, the ABC has been a more insular organisation. The days of outward facing MD Mark Scott have been replaced by insider David Anderson.

It was only when Morris gave a podcast interview to Hal Crawford a few weeks back that it occurred to me just how much quiet progress the organisation’s news division had made in the digital sphere.

Crawford Media
Gaven Morris on waking the ABC digital news giant
Listen now (31 min) | Earlier this week I wrote about Nine and the ABC being recognised internationally for their fast-growing news sites. I took the opportunity to examine the ways that metrics can be used and abused in newsrooms, and from the comments I received on that piece it’s clear that I hit a nerve with many people who have worked in digital. If you’ve been inside a…
Read more

And not long afterwards, Morris announced that he plans to step down. Another insightful interview with him was published on Friday, this time with Margaret Simons, for Inside Story.

For me the most telling line was Morris’s concession of the pressure he faced when relations with the Coalition government were at their worst under Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull:

“If I left, I didn’t know what would happen behind me, even though at times in that period I really didn’t want to be here anymore.”

The loneliness of that sort of leadership role is that insulating journalists from political pressure means that the journos are not in a position to appreciate or understand what their bosses are going through. As Simons put it:

“When the controversy over Milne’s behaviour broke, some reporters were ‘quite angry’ with Morris for not having told them about the pressure. But he saw his role as ‘taking the arrows into my own body. They should not know. There should be no question of them changing a story because of that pressure, so I kept it from them and I have no regrets about that.’”

Interestingly, it’s not Morris’s direct boss Anderson, but chair Ita Buttrose who is firming up as the face of resistance.

Yesterday she returned fire on the decision of the Liberal chair of the Senate Communications Committee, Senator Andrew Bragg, to launch an inquiry into the ABC’s complaints handling process. Pointing out that the ABC board is currently running its own review on the same topic, she labelled it “a blatant attempt to usurp the role of the ABC Board and undermine the operational independence of the ABC.”

Buttrose’s full statement is worth a read. It’s powerfully argued, and uncompromising:

“This is an act of political interference designed to intimidate the ABC and mute its role as this country’s most trusted source of public interest journalism. If politicians determine the operation of the national broadcaster’s complaints system, they can influence what is reported by the ABC.”

Interestingly, it also looks like Bragg has overplayed his hand. For a Coalition government, there are not many votes to be had in going too hard against the ABC, particularly if it looks to be about influencing coverage, and is called out.

The Australian’s Nick Tabakoff reports this morning that Bragg has been “rapped over the knuckles by the Prime Minister’s office”:

“Senior Coalition figures are furious that Senator Bragg has made the ABC complaints process a political issue that triggered Ms Buttrose’s strong reaction, and are examining ways to rapidly depoliticise and de-escalate the issue.”

For once, it looks like the ABC has won a round against the Coalition. If only it was willing to stand up for itself more often.

Please do drop me a line to on any of today’s topics. I suspect not everyone will agree with my view that JobKeeper was a good policy - feel free to tell me why I’m wrong.

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Tim Burrowes

Proprietor - Unmade