Nine admits Alan Jones boycott hurt Macquarie Media, denies editorial interference on bushfires coverage

Nine’s CEO Hugh Marks and chairman Peter Costello have admitted the backlash following Alan Jones’ comments regarding New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hurt the revenues of radio business Macquarie Media, now owned by Nine.

Speaking at Nine’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) today, Marks said ‘soft market conditions’ were ‘exacerbated’ by the boycott, while Costello claimed it was driven by non-listeners but was, nonetheless, a reminder for Jones to be ‘very careful what you say’.

A boycott following comments by Alan Jones hurt Macquarie Media’s advertising revenue, said Nine CEO Hugh Marks

On August 15, Jones said on his 2GB radio program that he wondered if Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had been briefed to ‘shove a sock’ down the throat of Ardern, in response to her comments on climate change. Further audio revealed that Jones also suggested Ardern should be ‘backhanded’ for her views.

The resulting furore incited an advertising boycott, sparked by consumers who voiced their opinions on Twitter and other social media platforms. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) received over 100 complaints about the incident, and Jones was handed an official warning from Macquarie Media.

“Radio has experienced soft market conditions in the current half, exacerbated for Macquarie by the advertiser boycott around the Alan Jones’ program on 2GB,” Marks said in today’s opening address. A shareholder question brought the topic back to the foreground later on in the meeting, prompting a response from chairman Peter Costello.

When asked how many advertisers had boycotted the radio business, and how big the impact had been, Costello said he wouldn’t give specifics, but said the incident had been a ‘reminder’ for the broadcaster.

“Alan Jones made some comments about the NZ Prime Minister which were unacceptable and offensive and the company has made that clear,” Costello said.

“Alan has apologised for those comments and he has written to the NZ prime minister to apologise for those comments. Independently of that, people have tried to organise a consumer boycott, many of whom, by the way, don’t listen to the station.

“Alan still is supported by an enormous audience, he topped the ratings, but he knows that he and the station, the owners of the station, have to make sure he is within the laws of defamation and public decency, and that has been made very clear to him.

“It’s a reminder to everybody that while you are a public broadcaster you have to be very careful what you say.”

Costello and Marks both remain confident in Nine’s editorial integrity, despite concerns from shareholders

The board was also asked about the editorial decision to run a front page story about Karl Stefanovic’s return to the Today show on the weekend, rather than dedicate the space to coverage of the catastrophic bushfires currently raging across the country. A shareholder asked if the decision was influenced at all by Nine execs, and said those shareholders who came across in the Fairfax merger found the situation ‘lamentable’ for what was once a ‘paper of record’.

Marks assured shareholders that the choice had not been made, or influenced, by Nine’s executives, and said that sometimes editors made mistakes on their choice of coverage.

“First assurance, neither Peter nor myself would know anything about the editor’s choices as to what they decided to run on the paper on that day. It’s not something that’s subject to editorial interference,” Marks said, adding that he hasn’t spoken to the editor regarding that day’s coverage.

“In terms of the general editorial intention for the mastheads, we continue to drive towards a revenue model more based on the subscriber, or what we call reader revenue, whether that be circulation or subscriptions and that very much depends on the integrity, quality, depth of coverage, things like the importance of media freedom are all relevant to the future of those mastheads.

“Will the editors get it right every time? No. they’re all human. will they get it right more often than not? I expect so.”

The meeting saw Nine warn that signs of improvement in the advertising market across September were not reflective of what is forecasted for the rest of the year, and early 2020, predicting ‘low single digit growth’ for FY2020 earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA). The media business expects the metro free-to-air advertising market will fall by mid-single digits.

Facebook and Google were the main targets of the meeting, with Costello saying the business is focusing on being able to perform strongly in the video on demand and social video arenas to tackle the global tech giants.

Editorial standards and independence were also raised in the meeting, with Costello again voicing the concerns of Nine regarding the Right to Know Coalition and press freedom. He was asked by the room whether Nine’s other assets, outside of the Fairfax titles, have their own editorial independence codes, which he said they did not. He did say that reporters at both Nine and Macquarie are ‘independent and voice their views very free from managerial direction’.

When asked about the Liberal party fundraiser which raised concerns for formerly-Fairfax journalists, Costello said the board had discussed the event and come to the conclusion similar events would not be held in future.

“The company [Nine] offered its premises to hold one of these functions,” Costello said.

“The decision was ultimately made by the CEO and Hugh [Marks] has said that was a mistake. The board has subsequently discussed its role in relation to the engagement of political parties.

“The board has decided we will not be holding any political fundraisers at our premises, but if the chief executive officer, the director of communications, the company secretary and the chief financial officer consider it valuable to maintain membership of those organisations, they will do so.”

Costello denied the event had affected the reputation of Fairfax.

“I think Fairfax is taken seriously, and I’d be very surprised if anyone here said it’s not,” he said.


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