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News Corp shielded from Rob Lucas's advertising transparency regime

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Treasurer Rob Lucas’s promise to draw back the curtains on government advertising campaigns has excluded News Corp, with official documentation hiding public spending on a long-running “partnership” with the Murdoch press due to restrictions written into the contract.

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Lucas's advertising regime

Lucas promised to provide new transparency on State Government advertising, including publishing the cost of campaigns up-front and timely evaluations of projects.

Since his new regime began nearly 18 months ago, only one deal has had its costs and other details withheld from the public – the “Future Adelaide” project with News Corp.

Despite the fact that the Future Adelaide campaign has been running since Lucas’s Government Communications Advisory Committee (GCAC) was set up in July 2019, the committee has mentioned it only once – in its October 2020 report, recently published on the Department of the Premier and Cabinet website.

That mention, which indicates the project is worth more than $200,000, uses commercial-in-confidence to justify censoring the campaign’s proposed budget and even a synopsis of the campaign’s scope and aims. Every other campaign in the GCAC’s reports includes a brief description and the expected budget.

The only information provided about Future Adelaide is the name of the campaign and its dates – October 20, 2020, to June 30, 2021.

Lucas told InDaily that the Government could not reveal the cost of the campaign due to the nature of its contract with News Corp.

“The individual media rates, negotiated through the Government Master Media agency, are commercial-in-confidence,” he said in a statement. “I am advised DPC sought advice from Crown who advised disclosing the amount is deemed to be a breach of contract.”

He said the previous Labor Government didn’t publish campaign costs or evaluations, including its own Future Adelaide-branded “partnership” with News Corp.

“Since the election but prior to the establishment of GCAC, the Government – at times – redacted certain campaign costs when it was deemed inappropriate to disclose the amounts,” Lucas said. “For example, the Tasting Australia event and the Adelaide 500.

“Since the establishment of GCAC, this is the first time a campaign cost has been declared commercial-in-confidence.”

The new campaign appears to be an extension of a project that has run for several years, including throughout the 2019-20 financial year, with News Corp titles in Adelaide and interstate publishing regular “Future Adelaide” branded supplements, digital magazines and individual articles.

DPC executive Steven Woolhouse told parliament’s Budget and Finance Committee in June this year that Future Adelaide was a “partnership between the government of South Australia and News Corp for promotion of South Australia, so it’s an always-on presence through a counter of news and information and shared across News Corp’s platforms”.

“It provides a platform for raising awareness and understanding of the state’s business and lifestyle opportunities. It’s got key initiatives and success stories around South Australia.”

A new collection of “Future Adelaide” branded material appeared in News Corp’s national newspaper, The Australian, on November 12, with the main article prominently quoting Premier Steven Marshall.

In June, Woolhouse indicated that no politicians had appeared in the Future Adelaide content and, if they had, it would be in breach of government advertising rules.

Committee chairperson, Labor’s Kyam Maher, asked: “Neither the Premier nor any ministers have been in any of those. Have they contributed content to them? You’re saying there are no pictures of a politician in any of those effectively.”

Woolhouse replied: “Yes.”

Maher: “Is that your evidence?”

Woolhouse: “Yes, not that I am aware of.”

Maher: “Would that be a breach of guidelines, if there was?”

Woolhouse: “Yes, I believe it would be in terms of ministerial guidelines. I think it’s in relation to paid advertising.”

Government rules explicitly prohibit the use of paid advertising campaigns for party-political purposes.

The rules also state that public funds cannot be used for paid advertising when “members of the government are named, depicted and promoted in a way that could be seen as excessive or gratuitous” or “it can be interpreted as political”.

Lucas said today that the story in The Australian quoting Marshall did not breach guidelines because it “did not use an image of the Premier, and naming the Premier was not considered to be ‘seen as excessive or gratuitous’.”

He said that an evaluation of the 2019-20 Future Adelaide campaign would be published on the DPC website, probably this month.

He described the campaign as “an initiative with News Corp – providing a platform for raising awareness and understanding of our state’s business and lifestyle opportunities, aiming to help attract interstate investment, visitation and migration”.

InDaily reported in July that GCAC had scaled back its public reporting on communication campaigns’ cost and effectiveness.

The GCAC was formed in July 2019 and, as of June this year, had published one evaluation report for the financial year. In the previous financial year, the Government had reported monthly on campaigns’ cost and effectiveness.

In response to InDaily’s questions in July about the frequency of reporting, Lucas promised to review the guidelines for reporting on government advertising.

On September 1, he said he had approved an amendment to the guidelines to require additional reporting and greater transparency about the cost of campaigns.

In addition to the rules requiring public reporting of the total cost and an “evaluation summary” for each approved communications initiative, typically done after its completion, the GCAC would now publish the cost of each campaign as it begins.

The rules are ambiguous about whether campaign costs are able to be hidden.

“To further improve transparency, the proposed budget, total cost and an evaluation summary for each communications initiative (above $50,000 ex GST) will be published on the DPC website,” the rules state.

“Agencies are responsible for notifying the GCAC Secretariat should this information not be considered appropriate for public release. GCAC reports to Cabinet quarterly on all marketing communications approvals (above $50,000 ex GST), and advertising media expenditure.”

Solstice Media, the publisher of InDaily, receives government advertising funds from time to time. The Lead project in the latest evaluation report is run by Solstice Media.

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