Morrison Drafts Laws to Placate Murdoch, as Google Threatens to Pull the Plug

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Morrison, Murdoch, and Google

Since the advent of the internet, data has increasingly risen in worth to the point that these days it’s the most valuable resource on the planet.

Over that same time frame, consumers have become increasingly aware that digital platforms are collecting and using our personal data to generate profit.

Big tech companies – in particular Google and Facebook – have been able to generate massive wealth via personally targeted advertising designed to catch the eye of the consumer whilst they’re perusing the platforms for other information, which includes searching for news.

Australian-American media mogul Rupert Murdoch has decided that he’d like a slice of that pie.

While not known to be overly concerned with keeping our nation’s news industry on an even playing field, he’s spearheaded a campaign calling on big tech to hand over profit to local news providers.

So, unsurprisingly, PM Scott Morrison jumped to attention. The former marketing director and his team has set about developing a mandatory news media bargaining code that would require Google and Facebook to hand over some of their profit to Rupert and other media players.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has been spruiking the new laws as a way of ensuring “a strong, diverse and sustainable Australian news media sector”, which has been under threat since the onset of the internet. And he also cites “public interest journalism” as a concern.

Of course, media diversity has never been a key preoccupation of Murdoch’s, while journalists uncovering concealed facts has never been high on the Coalition’s agenda.

Media diversity?

“I always get a little bit suspicious when the Murdoch media get really excited about something, and they’re really excited about this code,” former PM Kevin Rudd said in a social media post.

“I get doubly suspicious when Scotty from Marketing produces legislation to make the Murdoch media feel really happy.”

The code Rudd refers to is based on the recommendations of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) Digital Platforms Inquiry. Commissioned by the Coalition at the end of 2017, the inquiry delivered its final report in December 2019.

The ACCC was then asked to work with digital platforms and news media to develop a system of voluntary codes. However, as progress with these negotiations was limited on big tech’s side, the government asserted last April that it would develop a mandatory code.

“When it comes to media diversity,” Rudd made clear in his post. “I haven’t been all that impressed with what the ACCC have already done.”

The former Labor leader went on to explain that it was the ACCC that approved Nine’s purchase of Fairfax Media. He then pointed out that after the last election, Nine hosted a fundraiser for the Morrison government. And its current chair is former deputy Liberal leader Peter Costello.

“Then, of course, we have the earlier ACCC decision, which was to authorise Murdoch to purchase Australian Provincial Newspapers: that’s the mob who owned and run regional newspapers right across Australia.”

This resulted in Murdoch controlling 13 out of the 14 papers in Rudd’s home state of Queensland.

“So, pardon me, ACCC if I just get a bit sceptical about this proposal as well,” the former PM added.

That proposal

The issue the laws are drafted to resolve involves the ability digital platforms have to display news media links on their search engine pages. The government wants the tech giants to hand over some of the profits they generate via the advertising on their search page where these links are displayed.

The laws will hit Google and Facebook hardest as they receive 80 percent of the online advertising spend in this country. This has resulted in Australian news media companies seeing a marked downturn in their advertising revenue which has led to cuts and closures.

In an effort to redistribute advertising takings to Australian news media entities, the government introduced the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2020 in December. The legislation is currently under parliamentary committee review.

The laws set out that digital platforms and news corporations with an annual revenue of over $150,000 should negotiate agreements under the code. If an agreement can’t be reached, then the matter goes to arbitration. And both sides are free to come to an agreement outside of the code.

The laws also stipulate that digital platforms must warn news corporations of any changes to their algorithms. Google and Facebook claim this is unworkable. And the tech giants insist that these globally first of their kind laws fundamentally undermine the way the internet works.

Whose pockets are lined?

Rudd made his comments last September following the July release of the exposure draft of the bill. He raised the point that the ABC wouldn’t be eligible to charge for its content. And while this has been altered in the current draft, it does point to the government’s priorities in creating these laws.

In its submission to the parliamentary review of the bill, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) said it supports the incorporation of both the ABC and SBS within the scope of the current legislation.

However, MEAA raises concerns as there’s nothing within the laws that stipulate that the funds raised via the code will be used to ensure the “production of content”. And nor is there anything in the bill to address the hit that regional news outlets have taken over the last five years.

In May last year, the Murdoch media announced it was halting the printing of 100 local and regional newspapers, so these publications are now digital only.

MEAA recommends that the laws be altered so that more of the funds generated by the code are funnelled into propping up regional news media companies.

Is the truth out there?

Google Australia has launched a campaign calling for the laws in their current form to be dropped. It’s suggesting the answer is the already launched Google News Showcase. It involves Google paying local news providers to prominently feature their articles, linking them to readers free-of-charge.

If the new laws go through, Google has threatened to pull its search page from Australia. Currently, Google Search accounts for 95 percent of local searches, and its removal could have flow on effects to how different Google applications, such as Gmail, work.

Of course, being able to hold the Australian government to ransom like this does reveal that there’s an issue with the power some of these tech giants now hold. The Cambridge Analytica scandal that involved harvested data being used to target users with political messaging highlights this well.

But if Morrison’s solution is creating a new mechanism that simply redistributes some of  the profits being made by digital platforms into the pockets of entities like Murdoch media – which already has a stranglehold on Australian news content – this doesn’t sound like the answer.

Indeed, in this post-truth political arena, where whistleblowers are prosecuted and journalists are being silenced for exposing uncomfortable facts, it’s highly unlikely the Coalition government is drafting laws to ensure media diversity, as well as journalism that’s in the public interest.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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