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The $1.8m bill for media monitoring by federal agencies

Since Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull came to power, government agencies have spent more than $1.8 million on services just to know what the media is saying about them. Where is all that money going?

It would be incredibly expensive for every department to employ people to sift through every paper and keep an eye and ear on every TV channel and radio station (though often they do have people who do that), so this job is outsourced to the private sector. In Australia, the Coles and Woolworths of this industry are iSentia and Meltwater Group (but really there is no competition — iSentia is by far the largest supplier of media monitoring services to government, with 90% of the market share).

Not every response to the last set of Senate estimates’ questions on notice has been provided, but Crikey‘s analysis of the spending of the agencies that have reported back to the estimates committees shows that the majority of the $1.8 million-plus spent on media monitoring since Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister has gone to iSentia over the cut-price Meltwater.

This is what has been reported so far:

  • Department of Environment — between July 1, 2015, and February 10, 2016: $284,776.90 (iSentia)
  • Department of Communications — between September 1, 2015, and January 31, 2016: $91,970 (iSentia)
  • Department of Immigration and Border Protection — between October 1, 2015, and January 31, 2016: $126,813.61 (iSentia)
  • ABC: between September 1, 2015, and January 31, 2016 — $14,000 (iSentia)
  • SBS — from September 14, 2015, to January 31, 2016: $83,177 (split between iSentia and Multicultural NSW)
  • Australia Post — from October 1, 2015, to January 29, 2016: $86,393
  • NBN — since September 14: $123,660.98 (iSentia)
  • Australia Council — $39,084 (Meltwater and LexisNexis)
  • AFTRS — $1327 (Meltwater)
  • Creative Partnerships Australia — $2800 (Meltwater)
  • Screen Australia — $13,897 (about $13,000 to iSentia and $857 to Meltwater)
  • Health — from September 14, 2015, to February 29, 2016: $450,258.71 (iSentia)
  • Employment — from September 14, 2015, to January 31, 2016: $232,377 (iSentia)
  • Fair Work Ombudsman — September 14, 2015, to January 31, 2016: $18,861.53 (iSentia)
  • Comcare — $5462.50 (Meltwater)
  • Fair Work Building and Construction — $9959 (iSentia)
  • Department of Parliamentary Services — from September 14, 2015, to January 31, 2016: $97,355 (iSentia and Sentiment Metrics)
  • Department of Finance: $171,964.64 (iSentia)

Some government departments have begun reducing the cost of media monitoring on a whole-of-department level by offering a subscription to the media portal through a shared services unit. The Department of Employment does this for several of its agencies.

Government is big business for media monitoring firms. In iSentia’s first-half results for this financial year, Australian government agencies represented three out of iSentia’s top 10 clients, with annual revenues between the three clients representing up to $4 million in revenue for the company just for media monitoring services. For comparison, the ABC spent just $14,000 on iSentia monitoring. But in the same period the broadcaster spent $326,374 on newspaper and magazine subscriptions, and $58,971 on its Foxtel subscription.

One agency that still does a lot of internal monitoring is the Parliamentary Library — the resource used by all MPs and senators. Initially the service only covered content broadcast in Canberra, but the library explained in a question-on-notice response that it now includes all channels on the Viewer Access Satellite TV service, all metro ABC AM radio stations, and 56 commercial radio stations on the Fairfax Radio monitoring service. The Parliamentary Library also has access to the iSentia media portal.

Is it money well spent?

Just what do they get for their money? It depends on how much they are willing to spend. For some it can be just press clippings, for others it is press and daily TV and radio mentions in the form of summaries, for others still it is up-to-date alerts on when they appear or are mentioned in the media. Clients then pay for audio or video clips, or transcripts of interviews or press conferences. There is also a portal set up where customers can go in and search for something they might have missed or be looking for.

iSentia spokesperson Patrick Baume told Crikey the company employed more than 300 people in Australia. Years ago, much of the monitoring was done domestically in local offices around Australia, where monitors often had local knowledge of the content they were monitoring, but eventually production work was centralised, and now much of the monitoring is done outside of Australia by workers in foreign markets where labour is cheaper. Baume would not confirm to Crikey how much of the company’s work was done offshore, but he said “the vast majority of our overseas staff are providing services for their own markets”.

“We are, in 2016, an Australian-owned company providing media intelligence services across nine other countries in the Asia Pacific region and we currently have over 1700 clients across those markets,” he saud.

The media monitoring companies pay a significant licensing fee — which they pass onto their clients — in order to access and then sell copyrighted material. But copyright has been a thorny issue in the past. Fairfax in particular has attempted to challenge the business model of monitoring companies to provide such material to their clients. Most recently, in 2010, Fairfax lost a case in the Federal Court where it attempted to claim that a media monitoring service called ABIX was infringing on Fairfax copyright by reproducing the headlines of its articles. ABIX uses these headlines, as well as a summary of the article written by a staff member, to keep its customers informed about what was being said about them, but it could have been seen as a threat to Fairfax’s paywall model for The Australian Financial Review.

In April, iSentia signed a new agreement with Copyright Agency to get as-they-publish access to content from Fairfax, News Corp, Bauer, APN, and WA Newspapers.

This article was originally published at Crikey. Josh Taylor was employed by iSentia while studying journalism until mid-2010. Crikey also has a media monitoring deal with iSentia. 

Author Bio

Josh Taylor

Josh Taylor is a senior journalist at Crikey. He was previously an IT journalist at ZDNet.