Internal memos from NZ’s biggest magazine company, which announced its sudden closure yesterday, state they were lobbying to change a ban on publication. But the minister responsible, Kris Faafoi, has doubled down on rejecting that position, calling those internal communications ‘contradictory’ to what they said to him directly. Updated with comment from Bauer at the foot.
Magazine publishing giant Bauer yesterday morning announced an abrupt closure, resulting in the loss of 237 jobs and historic titles like the Listener and Woman’s Weekly. It came less than a week after the government deemed magazines not an essential service under the terms of the level four Covid-19 lockdown.
Two starkly different versions of what led to the closure have emerged in the 24 hours since the shock announcement: Bauer says it lobbied to overturn the ban on printing, and after failing to do so had no choice but to close. Kris Faafoi, minister responsible for media, says no one from Bauer ever lobbied his office on that point, and the company had rejected any government assistance through the wage subsidy. He and the prime minister insist Bauer’s exit is unrelated to the Covid-19 crisis.
In announcing the closure yesterday, Bauer publisher Brendon Hill pointed directly to the essential services designation as its cause. “We understand the New Zealand government’s decision to move to Covid-19 level four,” he was quoted as saying in a statement issued by Bauer, “but it has put our business in an untenable position.”
This explanation didn’t wash with prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who insisted yesterday that Bauer had used Covid-19 as a smokescreen for a shutdown already planned.
“Within a couple of days of the New Zealand government announcing the lockdown, Bauer contacted the minister and told him they weren’t interested in subsidies,” Ardern said. “They didn’t enter a conversation about becoming an essential service, they didn’t seek to continue to operate in lockdown and they didn’t want to use the government support to keep their doors open, so I reject any suggestion that Covid-19 and our response to it has caused them to shut their printing press but I deeply regret that they have. In my view, they should have taken it up and they should have kept going.”
The minister responsible for media, Kris Faafoi, confirmed in response to a question from The Spinoff that he “is adamant Bauer did not raise the question of them being an essential service”. The Magazine Publishers Association (MPA) represents the industry, and made a submission to the government through the ministry for culture and heritage. MPA head Sally Duggan told The Spinoff that “the MPA worked closely with Bauer and other publishers on that submission. And [Bauer MD] Tanya Walshe was chair of the MPA at that time, so was very aware of what was in it.”
Internal Bauer emails obtained by The Spinoff, however, suggest the magazine company was lobbying for a change to the essential services criteria. An all-staff message on March 28 stated “Bauer Media is assisting the MPA [Magazine Publishers Association] on a further submission” to the guidelines which had excluded them from the essential services designation.
The MPA’s own email, forwarded by Bauer to its staff, stated that it was working “on an industry-wide submission. We’ve been in constant communication with government staff, who say they are open to feedback and making changes”.
Publisher of New Zealand Geographic, James Frankham, backed up the emails, telling The Spinoff, “The MPA, including Bauer Media, argued for essential service status, both as a media outlet for news and current affairs, and as a supplier to supermarkets, through both MCH and MBIE.”
“Magazine publishers are uniquely exposed when we are banned from reaching our audiences, and it is especially frustrating when we are banned from using channels that all other suppliers are allowed to use.” Frankham also noted that the MPA’s position was manifestly that of Bauer, as media had been instructed to use their trade associations to communicate with the government.
Despite this, Faafoi continues to assert that Bauer never raised the issue of the essential services exclusion with him in direct conversations, and was not interested in remaining in operation. “Regarding any request for government assistance, they explicitly stated to the minister that they were not seeking and would not accept subsidies or direct government support to keep the Bauer New Zealand business operating.” Newshub yesterday reported that Bauer offered to sell its titles to the government to save the jobs, an offer it rejected. Soon after came the closure of Bauer NZ, by some distance New Zealand’s biggest magazine publisher.
Other publishers see a direct line between the closure and the essential services exclusion. “It didn’t surprise me that Bauer closed,” Frankham said. “If you can’t get your product to market and the ministries won’t tell you what alert levels that might be possible under, you’re in an impossible position.
“The MPA has been very clear about the vulnerability of the media. And the outcome of this policy always had the whiff of inevitability about it. But even after a week of intense communication with his officials, Minister Faafoi refuses to acknowledge these facts.”
When pressed to define exactly what Bauer did say in their conversations with the minister, a later statement supplied to The Spinoff doubled down on the government’s assertion that Bauer was already committed to closing down.
“The minister is clear that in his conversations with Bauer they never raised the issue of magazines not being an essential service,” said a spokesperson.
“What advocacy the Publishers Association may have been conducting wasn’t through the minister and Bauer did not raise the association’s position [with] the minister. Equally the minister is clear that Bauer were signalling their intention to leave the NZ market and were not interested in the government’s Covid-19 response assistance.”
He was surprised that they were “running contradictory claims in their internal communications to suggest they did otherwise”. This, he said, was “not the case”.
Subsequent to publication, a Bauer spokesperson sent through the following statement:
“Bauer NZ through its membership of the Magazine Publishers Association has been actively involved in lobbying the Ministry for Culture and Heritage to re-classify magazine publishing as an essential service under the Covid-19 level four restrictions. Unfortunately, these efforts were not successful.
The issue of overturning the ban was not raised in Bauer Media Group’s engagement in recent days with Minister Faafoi on the future of the New Zealand business. These discussions were focused on the situation that the business is in and potential pathways forward. The New Zealand Government has been very clear that the Covid-19 restrictions on non-essential businesses such as magazine publishing will remain. We understand this decision and even if it is reversed at some stage in the future it will not make a difference to the ongoing economic viability of the business.”