If emails between the offices of the Prime Minister and Communications Minister became public it could harm their working relationship “now and into the future”, a legal notice has stated.
- Fox Sports was given a further $10 million to broadcast women’s, niche and underrepresented sports
- The money, announced in July, came on top of an initial $30 million grant in 2017
- Most of the correspondence between the Communications Minister and Prime Minister was withheld from the FOI release
Partially refusing a Freedom of Information (FOI) request about a controversial $10 million taxpayer-funded grant to Fox Sports, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher’s chief of staff Ryan Bloxsom said the disclosure “could reasonably be expected to have a detrimental effect on the working relationship between the minister’s office and the Prime Minister’s office, now and into the future”.
Additionally, the letter outlining that specific decision found the public interest was to “withhold the exempt material” rather than release it.
The ABC sought internal emails about a July 22 media release spruiking the $10 million Federal Government grant intended to boost broadcast coverage of under-represented sports.
The money, a boost to an earlier $30 million grant that caused a firestorm of criticism, pays the sports channel to broadcast sports under-represented on television.
Fox Sports is only available by subscription, meaning taxpayers must pay to watch the sports they are paying to broadcast.
Flurry of emails, most heavily redacted
Emails obtained using the Freedom of Information (FOI) process show a flurry of correspondence between the offices of the Communications Minister, Prime Minister and the department as the date of the announcement neared — and a quickly formulated plan to deal with angry callers contacting electorate offices after the grant was revealed.
As adjudicator of what would be released to the public, Mr Bloxsom denied access to any full document and sent just 13 items.
Of the 67 pages released, 19 pages are completely blanked out, most of them exempted for the reason they would reveal “trade secrets” or “information having a commercial value”. A further 16 pages are press releases or drafts.
Under the heading “deliberative processes” and “application of the public interest test”, Mr Bloxsom weighed the intention of the legislation behind FOI in the disclosure of emails between the offices of the Prime Minister and the Communications Minister.
The reasons for release included to “inform debate on a matter of public importance” and to “promote effective oversight of public expenditure”.
Reasons against disclosure included that it could reveal “opinion, advice or recommendations” from early deliberations, and “disclosure could reasonably be expected to have a detrimental effect on the working relationship between the minister’s office and the Prime Minister’s office, now and into the future”.
In weighing them, he found “on balance, I consider the public interest factors against disclosure to be more persuasive than the public interest factors favouring disclosure. I am satisfied that the public interest is to withhold the exempt material”.
Multiple brief emails from the Prime Minister’s office in the days before the release are blanked out.
“These lines are fine,” Communications Minister Paul Fletcher emailed on the day of the release, after being asked how to respond to three separate inquiries (that appear to be from journalists) about the grant.
Foxtel boss expressed his gratitude
Foxtel chief executive Patrick Delany emailed the minister directly to thank him for his support.
“It is appreciated. We will continue to exceed expectations with this grant as we have done with the previous tranche,” he wrote.
The release contended that coverage of women’s sports including AFLW, WNBL and W-League had increased more than 100 per cent since 2016 and that in the coming year 14 different sport codes would benefit, including rugby union, rugby league, cricket, basketball, hockey, softball and baseball.
Two days later, as public fury about the grant lit up social media, talkback radio lines and reception desks at electorate offices, an unnamed member of the minister’s office asked the boss if they could distribute a Q&A document to colleagues.
“A lot of your colleagues are receiving calls/emails about the grant given to Fox Sports to broadcast underrepresented, niche and emerging sports,” it read, attaching a document of “talking points” to refute criticism of the decision.
The dot points list reasons the grant benefited taxpayers and why it was not put out to tender so that public broadcasters SBS and the ABC could bid for it.
“The Government is providing support to boost the visibility and participation of underrepresented and women’s sports,” the notes read.
The minister took less than 20 minutes to respond: “Good to go.”