Mandatory media code is patronage

Having persuaded the Government that Google and Facebook should subsidise large, old-style media, the Murdoch press is at it again, wanting to privatise/make more conservative, the National broadcaster. This will be music to the ears of the hardliners in the Coalition, other than those in regional areas whose constituents like the ABC.

But what hypocrisy!  Apart from the tripe dished up by the News Corp rags; The Herald Sun, The Courier Mail, the Advertiser, the NT news, and what’s left of regional papers, the ABC (and AAP) provides much of the investigative journalism used in content that’s in any way serious.

News Corp has paywalls on all online versions of their printed news so how is it they feel entitled to be paid by Google for links to content?  If the Government bill to force payments is passed in coming weeks, does this mean free online access to the Financial Review, The Australian all the rest of the News Corp stable? Will this money be spent on employing more journalists or handed over to shareholders? The requirement that ‘core news’ must be delivered by a journalist has been removed. Why?

The News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Code Bill will certainly bring new income to news media with turnovers of more than $150,000 but there is little by way of rationale as to why Facebook and Google should pay for displaying links to news stories.

As the Atlassian submission points out:

… there is no direct evidence that news media businesses have suffered any net loss of impressions as a result of their links and snippets being displayed on the platforms.

Given its targeted nature and drastic form, the Code may read on the global stage like protectionism for established Australian media at best and open hostility to the tech sector at worst.

No criteria has been advanced as to why Facebook and Google have been singled out for payments and none for those platforms the Minister has the power to add in the future.

Not surprisingly, media businesses are generally in favour and the tech sector against but copyright expert at the UTS, Dr David Brennan said the legislation would be vulnerable to constitutional challenge and international law and that copyright laws were a better fit and more likely to survive.

… as it stands, the payment aspect of the bargaining code absent a substratum of property rights in the news businesses evokes a patronage relationship between the Commonwealth government (which is using its power to enforce payment from the digital platforms) and the recipient news businesses. Such Government patronage is the antithesis of the competitive and expressive freedoms that copyright exists to serve.

In case the Government hasn’t noticed, very few people are now catching the train to work with a newspaper under-arm. Digital platforms are here to stay and smart media businesses are slotting advertising in with online content, advertising that is tailored to the purchasing interests of consumers, just as Google does.

Online news is generally good for media diversity. In fact it’s the main source of new media entrants in a field that has been ever diminishing in diversity thanks to successive governments watering down media ownership rules under old media pressure.

Sales of printed versions of newspapers are in free-fall. The two main News Corp papers lost 300k readers each in 2019, the Sydney Morning Herald down by 20%.

For decades we have been chucking out the vast majority of newspaper pages, unread – the classifieds, the sports pages, the racing guides. How many trees died for content not wanted by readers and how much cheaper must it be to publish online rather than onpaper? Printing and distribution take up 80% of the cost of newspapers. Then there are the greenhouse gas emissions from making paper, printing, trucking and recycling. 

Finally, a shoutout to new media that gets it.  

Anyone can sign up for free to The Guardian Australia online.  It’s journalistic freedom is safeguarded by a 85 year old UK trust plus advertising income, philanthropy and donations by readers who value public interest journalism.

The Saturday Paper – part of the Swartz Media group that includes The Monthly, Quarterly Essay and Australian Foreign Affairs – is printed and online by subscription. TSP publishes in-depth stories it calls narrative journalism and employs some of Australia’s best, most experienced journalists like Karen Middleton, Mike Seccombe and Paul Bongiorno. Its circulation is ~120,000, half print, half online. It has various platforms including 7am – a podcasting offer for as little as $10 one-off subscription.

The Conversation, now 10 years old, is a global network that publishes science and research-based news and analysis online and free. It’s also free to republish. It’s funded by 20,000 individual donors, philanthropists, and partners in the university and research sector and has 63 million readers.

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

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