Introduction by Croakey: Media outlets and governments across the globe are watching Australia after the Federal Government introduced a Bill (explained in detail here) for a ground-breaking mandatory code to compel digital platforms like Google and Facebook to pay eligible Australian news media outlets for use of their news content.
Meanwhile, the public health sector has been urged to engage with sustaining the roles of public interest journalism as an important determinant of health, in an article published today in the journal Public Health Research & Practice: ‘Converging crises: public interest journalism, the pandemic and public health’.
The authors, from Croakey Health Media, urge readers to make submissions to a Senate inquiry into media diversity (deadline is Friday, 11 December), as well as incorporating consideration of public interest journalism into public health advocacy, education, research and practice.
While the new code may yield benefits for some media outlets, it will not deliver all that is needed to support public interest journalism at this critical time, according to discussions at two recent events, reported below by Marie McInerney.
Marie McInerney writes:
Professor Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and former World Bank chief economist, has hailed Australia’s world-first efforts to require Google and Facebook to pay news outlets for carrying their stories but warned it should tax them if they make good on their threats to boycott Australian news over the move.
Stiglitz told a webinar hosted last week by The Australia Institute that the market power of the tech giants is proving “absolutely devastating” for public interest journalism and democracy, and it may be time for governments to fund public interest journalism as a public good, in the same way they fund important scientific research.
Nations may have to face the reality that, “like the production of basic research, the production of good information is an essential thing for a well-functioning democracy and we’re going to have to pay for it,” he said, suggesting it may also be time to build public platforms to compete with digital giants.
Stiglitz was speaking at the webinar with leading US journalism academic Dr Anya Shiffrin, ahead of the introduction this week of a ground-breaking Bill requiring digital platforms to enter into revenue sharing deals with Australia media companies.
While welcoming Australia’s “brave” work on the code, they cautioned that it is not a panacea to the crisis facing public interest journalism and societies, in the face of growing disinformation, lack of media diversity, and hyper-partisanship that is eroding trust and truth.
The need for wider reforms was also discussed last week at a Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia (JERAA) conference discussion on non-profit journalism, featuring panelists from The Conversation and Croakey. (Watch the full one-hour discussion here).
While welcoming the bargaining code on many grounds, Croakey managing editor Dr Melissa Sweet told the JERAA conference that Australian media policy is “a desert landscape if you’re interested in the public interest”.
She pointed to an “endless long list” of reforms or proposals, including the bargaining code and recent Federal Government grants for regional media, that “do not centre” public and community interest nor seek wider civil engagement with public interest journalism.
“Media reform is not media business, it’s community business,” Sweet said, urging community and health groups to make sure it is not just the media companies and other “usual suspects” that are making submissions to the current Senate inquiry into media diversity in Australia.
Like The Conversation, Croakey has been advocating for a range of reforms to enable wider development of a non-profit journalism sector, including ensuring transparent and equitable access to deductible gift recipient (DGR) status.
What’s the mandatory bargaining code about?
Australia’s proposed News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code has been three years in the making, spearheaded by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which published a draft code in July 2020.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told Parliament today that the “world-leading code” sought to address the bargaining power imbalances between digital platforms and Australian news media businesses.
“It represents a major reform – an historic reform – a world first,where the eyes of the world will be on what is occurring here in Australia,” he said.
“Public interest journalism plays an important role in our society. It is critical to the functioning of our democracy. This role can only be fulfilled by a strong, diverse and sustainable Australian news media sector.”
Despite reported opposition from Coalition MPs, the ABC and SBS will now be eligible under the code, with a promise from Communications Minister Paul Fletcher that any payments negotiated by the ABC won’t be deducted from Federal Government funding. He said the ABC had committed to invest these payments in regional journalism, which the Coalition welcomed.
The tech giants have yet to comment on the legislation (which may face amendments in the Senate, amid a call from the Greens for the Federal Government to also support news agency AAP, which was nearly shut down this year). However, they slammed the ACCC’s early draft.
Facebook has threatened to block Australians from sharing news across its platforms, while Google warned users the draft code would “force us to provide you with a dramatically worse Google Search and YouTube, could lead to your data being handed over to big news businesses, and would put the free services you use at risk in Australia”.
They scored a significant win in the legislation, according to a Sydney Morning Herald report, which now allows them to factor in the value they provide to news companies and also delivered concessions on algorithm changes. The companies are expected to lobby hard while the Senate considers the legislation ahead of an expected vote in early 2021.
The Australia Institute’s chief economist Richard Denniss says the legislation represents an “incredible political moment” in Australia – a bill to regulate big companies from a conservative government, backed by a corporate like Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and supported by the ACCC – which might usually object about the overwhelming dominance of News Corp in Australia. It thus had produced, he said, “the strangest political alignment I’ve perhaps ever seen”.
The code is also a popular move, according to Peter Lewis, director of Essential Media Communications and the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology. At the webinar, he shared Essential Media’s recent survey that found the majority of Australians regard Facebook and Google as too powerful and want the government to regulate them and make them pay for media content.
Lewis said this week the laws would give media organisations a fighting chance at building a viable business model, in the face of the market domination of Google and Facebook.
Structural shift needed
The stakes are high, for both public interest journalism and the sustainability of journalism more broadly, said Shiffrin, a former journalist who is Director of Technology, Media, and Communications at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
She told the webinar that the COVID-19 pandemic had accelerated devastating long-term trends in loss of revenue for journalism, prompting the collapse of many outlets, the demise of local news in many places and a warning from global philanthropic Luminate that COVID-19 could be an “extinction event” for public interest media.
At the same, time, she said, consumption of news has skyrocketed amid growing understanding of the importance for democracies and societies of quality information.
“We need a huge structural shift, we need to get the tech companies to pay for news,” she said, adding there was “huge hope” globally that Australia’s mandatory bargaining code would be successful where other efforts, such as in France and Spain, had not been.
“I think you’re very brave to go out there on your own, but you’re being watched closely because everyone’s fingers are crossed, hoping this will really make a difference to support quality in journalism,” she said.
Stiglitz warned that Australia should be ready for the tech giants to act on their threats. He urged the Government to have Plan B in place, “which is actually to impose a tax on the (media) and use that tax directly to fund the real news production”.
Nodding to concerns from webinar participants that many Murdoch media outlets fail to deliver quality journalism, Shiffrin said that made it “incredibly important” that Australia’s code includes the ABC and SBS, as well as commercial media operators, an inclusion urged by many other, including Croakey, during consultations on the code.
“I think it’s clear that societies that have public broadcasters are often less polarised, they have a sort of shared basis of common knowledge and common fact,” Shiffrin said, pointing to the polarisation in the US over the risks and reality of COVID-19 and the verdict of the presidential election that has made it clear “how dangerous mis- and disinformation has become to our political system”.
The US is “living this absolute nightmare” where high quality salient information is no longer providing the bedrock for a functioning society and it was clear, “without a shadow of a doubt”, that Google and Facebook had not done nearly enough to stop the spread of misinformation, she said.
A public good
Both Shiffrin and Stiglitz mounted the case for greater public funding of journalism as a “public good”, as long as it is in the public interest and useful to society, rejecting criticisms that this is subsidising a “failed” business model.
Look at universities and public broadcasting for example, Shiffrin said. “There are so many important things in this world that don’t actually make any money and if we have rich societies that can afford to fund those things, then I absolutely think we should”.
“If you start going you start going down the path of everything has to make a profit, well, then you end up in a healthcare system like we have in the United States,” she warned.
In the one-hour discussion attended by nearly 800 people, Stiglitz talked about the unparalleled power exercised by Google and Facebook (see more about this from a landmark US inquiry here).
Facebook’s threat to not carry Australian news if it is bound by the code was testament to that market power, as it could not take such a risk if it had any proper competition, he said.
But while it was difficult for regulators to consider trying to break up the tech giant, he said governments globally had failed to intervene at a number of critical points when they could have to stem its power, reach and harm — perhaps most critically when it helped fuel genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Asked if the tech giants were now too big to regulate, Stiglitz said he believed Facebook had mismanaged privacy breaches and misinformation around COVID-19 so badly that it had lost the political battle. If it continued to exercise its market power in a brazen way, like refusing to carry Australian news, “the thing is to basically nationalise them…create an alternative public platform”, he said.
Richard Denniss said he worried that hesitancy to regulate the Facebooks and Googles is due to neoliberalism having “stripped away” much of the public’s confidence in the power of the nation state. Failure to act to regulate them was “as much a statement about the willingness of the public to pick that fight, as it is of the size of the company itself”, he said.
(Update 10/12/20: Dozens of US states and the federal government have launched antitrust lawsuits against Facebook, alleging it has abused its dominance in the digital marketplace and engaged in anticompetitive behavior.)
Shiffrin also talked about the growth of non-profit journalism over recent decades, particularly in the US, which has seen the emergence of highly successful independent news outlets like ProPublica, which are backed by philanthropy, even while most remain “pretty hand to mouth”, finding it hard to scale up.
How to support the growth of non-profit journalism in Australia was the focus of the JERAA session, featuring The Conversation’s Misha Ketchell and Damian Thompson, and moderated by Croakey contributing editor Associate Professor Megan Williams, a Wiradjuri justice health researcher and educator.
Croakey’s Melissa Sweet said non-profit journalism has huge potential to address many of the failings of mainstream media problems with disinformation, lack of diversity, and a focus on shareholders rather than communities.
She also said COVID-19 had highlighted the importance of health journalism — not the narrow focus of many medical journalism rounds, “but one that interrogates the health impacts of all policies and wider decisions”.
As many other sectors looked to build back stronger and better from COVID-19, the pandemic also provided a moment “to reflect how we can do journalism differently”, she said, asking what lessons could be drawn from Aboriginal community controlled organisations that had protected their communities through the pandemic through self-determination and community leadership.
“What is self-determination for communities when it comes to journalism?” she asked.
The session also heard about how The Conversation had spread from its origins in Australia to now have staff based in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, US, Africa, Indonesia, France and Spain.
Editor and executive director Misha Ketchell said it too had experienced huge demand for its evidence-based work during the pandemic, while also facing funding challenges given its future is “very tied” to the university sector, which has been hit in Australia by lack of government support.
Ketchell welcomed the pending introduction of the media bargaining code, but agreed “there’s something bigger that needs to be done in government understanding and supporting a healthy information ecosystem in Australia – and that’s a piece of work that’s yet to be done in Australia”.
“For democracy to survive you need clean information in the same way you need you clean water for health,” he said.
• Croakey acknowledges and thanks donors to our public interest journalism funding pool for supporting this article.