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Urgent: consultation on media futures closes tomorrow

Croakey readers who would like to engage with an opportunity for improving the Australian media landscape are strongly encouraged to make a submission to this consultation by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

But be quick – it’s due by 5pm this Friday, 28 August.

The ACCC is consulting on a draft Bill that could lead to a much-needed and possibly life-saving revenue boost for news organisations at a time of great contraction and vulnerability in the sector (although there are many questions, caveats and concerns).

The legislation would establish a mandatory code to compel Google and Facebook to pay eligible Australian news media businesses for the use of their news content.

While it’s far from clear what arrangements may flow from the code, the Chairman of Nine, Peter Costello, argues that Facebook and Google should pay news businesses $600 million per year to make the value exchange fair, while News Corp suggests the figure is closer to $1 billion per year (sourced from here).

To date, the ACCC consultation process has been largely dominated by the vested interests involved – media and related organisations (including Croakey Health Media), and the digital platforms.

However, wider civil society, including the public health sector, also should be at the table, as significant public policy and public interest issues are at stake – as you will know if you followed our reporting of the ACCC inquiry into digital platforms or our ongoing coverage of the crisis in public interest journalism.

Critical for democracy

Private Media (which publishes Crikey and other specialised news services) has argued that the code “is likely to seriously impact on Australian democracy and potentially determine the fate of independent news publishing”.

In a submission to an earlier ACCC concepts paper informing the code’s development, Private Media said:

If the effect of this code were to transfer significant financial support from two giant US technology companies to three large Australian/US media companies, without sustaining smaller independent Australian-owned public interest journalism, it will inflict substantial collateral damage on our society.

It will reduce competition, starve regional and specialist audiences of original civic journalism, and increase the already-high concentration of ownership of Australia’s news ecosystem.”

Much is at stake for regional and rural communities, in particular.

A submission by 88 regional, state and national news publishers, including members of Country Press Australia, said:

We believe the establishment of the Mandatory News Media Bargaining Code is likely to be one of the most important media policy decisions affecting Australian democracy for decades. It could literally determine the fate of the independent news publishing industry.

If this policy results in large, ongoing financial support to a tiny handful of the biggest, most powerful media companies – and does not support independently-owned public interest journalism, represented by our group, on a scale that ensures its viability – it could permanently and irrevocably increase the concentration of ownership of Australia’s news ecosystem into the hands of two or three large companies, limiting competition and employment.

Diverse ownership of news publishing is crucial to our democracy. It gives hundreds of regions and communities access to local journalism, it provides diversity of news coverage and views in the cities, and it ensures that the country’s journalism isn’t left almost entirely in the hands of two or three large companies for whom news journalism is just one part.”

The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has also raised concerns about the implications for diversity in an already overly concentrated media landscape:

Australia has one of the least diverse news media ecosystems anywhere in the world. It remains the case that approximately 90 percent of all newspaper titles are controlled by three or four companies: Nine Entertainment, NewsCorp, SevenWest and Australian Community Media.

The Code should not only capture news media organisations of scale, but play a role in improving media diversity.”

Given that time is short, below are a few suggestions for issues that Croakey readers could consider raising with the ACCC.

1. Call for a fair deal for the ABC and SBS

The Federal Government has locked the ABC and SBS out of the opportunity to earn revenue through the code (the ACCC’s Rod Sims has made clear this was not his decision). And this at a time when funding cuts are gutting the ABC.

If you think a strong ABC is important for public debate, public policy and a healthy Australia, then write to Minister Paul Fletcher and make your views clear to the ACCC.

2. Advocate for equity, transparency and accountability

The code is an important public policy issue, of global significance, and it is important that transparency and accountability be built in to the processes and outcomes.

There should be full disclosure of any arrangements flowing from this legislation. Instead, it seems the process will likely be inequitable and opaque with few opportunities for accountability to the public.

3. Keep engaging

It is far from clear whether the code will achieve its desired outcomes. As the Copyright Agency noted, the digital giants have so far been able to ward off proposals to compensate media companies in Germany, Spain and, more recently, France, and the bargaining imbalance is huge. It has been observed that even News Corp is a minnow compared with Google. There will also be imbalances within the collective bargaining processes.

All of which to say, the code is not ‘the’ solution to the crisis in public interest journalism. It is worth engaging with this process, but it is also important to keep advocating for other important reforms.

A joint submission by the Public Interest Journalism Initiative and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas also argues that more than the code “is needed to ensure the survival and sustainability of public interest journalism in Australia”.

Their submission said:

Multiple policy levers (short and longterm) must be used to address the seriousness and extensiveness of the problems facing public interest journalism in this country. The levers across media, digital platforms, philanthropy, and government can intersect and complement one another, to ensure a sustainable public interest journalism eco-system in Australia…

Philanthropy remains an under-utilised resource in Australia, and with the appropriate support and encouragement could emerge as an important funding source for public interest journalism, particularly in rural and regional communities.”

Like Croakey, the PIJI and JNI would like to see reforms to encourage philanthropic support for journalism, including by:

  • creating a new category of charitable purpose for public interest journalism within the Charities Act 2013
  • creating a new deductible gift recipient (DGR) category for public interest journalism within Division 30 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997
  • creating a new independent charitable organisation with a principal purpose to support public interest journalism in Australia and providing it with a specific listing in s 30.105 of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1997.

A joint submission by First Nations Media Australia and Community Broadcasting Association of Australia also notes the importance of not-for-profit journalism, in contributing to the diversity of views represented in the Australian media landscape.

Useful references

If making a submission, these references may be useful:

The joint PIJI JNI submission

MEAA submission

Joint submission by First Nations Media Australia andCommunity Broadcasting Association of Australia

Croakey Health Media submission

Article in The Guardian by Dr Margaret Simons

Check the other submissions

At The Conversation: ‘Suck it and see’ or face a digital tax, former ACCC boss Allan Fels warns Google and Facebook

At The Conversation: The government’s regional media bailout doesn’t go far enough — here are reforms we really need.

(This article was updated with more links to references after publication).

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