Vital Signs. Google shouldn’t subsidise journalism, but the government could



Jeff Chiu/AP

Richard Holden, UNSW

You might have missed it – what with the biggest recession since the 1930s and a pandemic going on – but there may be big, and bad, changes happening to a media landscape near you.

Right now the Australian government is considering amending the Competition and Consumer Act 2010 to force Google and Facebook to pay local commercial media organisations for the sharing of their content on the digital platforms.

The News Media and Digital Platforms Bargaining Code proposed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will require the tech and media companies to make terms through “mandatory binding arbitration”. It will also oblige them to divulge parts of their core intellectual property (such Google’s search algorithm).

It has been lauded as a world-first in addressing the power imbalance between the platforms and traditional news organisations.

Champions such as commission chief Rod Sims argue it’s a simple matter of forcing Google and Facebook to pay a fair price for extracting value from journalism for which they pay nothing. As Sims put it:

What this was all about was the imbalance in bargaining power, the market failure that comes from that, and underpayment for news having a detrimental effect on Australian society.

Who could argue with that? Even federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg has described it as “a question of fairness”.

But from an economic standpoint the whole bargaining code is hopelessly confused. It fails to properly understand the source of competitive pressure for media companies, and why they have lost revenues over the last 15 years.

Mandatory binding arbitration between tech and media companies is also a completely inappropriate policy tool to achieve the public policy goal of fostering high-quality journalism.

As I have written about in detail for the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, making the code law risks doing serious harm to Australian consumers while shovelling money to large media companies like Nine Entertainment and News Corp Australia.

Faced with the prospect of having to divulge key intellectual property, it would not be surprising if Google and Facebook simply prefer not to be in the Australian market. Millions of Australians using Google, YouTube and Facebook will lose out.

Media revenue sinking

Between 2002 and 2018, consulting firm AlphaBeta estimates total annual revenue for Australian newspapers fell from A$4.4 billion to A$3.0 billion. Almost all of this was due to lost classified advertising revenue, worth A$1.5 billion in 2002 but just A$200 million in 2018.

“That’s Google’s fault,” you might cry.

Actually no. The vast bulk of lost classified advertising revenue was due to online “pure-plays” such as Seek, Domain and Carsales. Google and Facebook took basically none of this revenue.




Read more:
Billions lost, boards to blame: Colleen Ryan on the rise and fall of Fairfax


The media companies were sitting on a gold mine of classified advertising. Then there was massive technological disruption due to the internet and smart phones.

That, as they say in the classics, is show business.

It doesn’t justify making companies who happened to succeed in an adjacent space at the same time fork over a chunk of their revenues.

But aren’t tech companies ‘stealing’ content?

If big tech companies were somehow allowing you and me free access to content we would otherwise have to pay for, there might be a case to answer.

That would be like Google Maps not only giving you directions to a restaurant but the means to also avoid paying for your meal.

But using a search engine does not allow you to get free meals, nor to get around a news organisation’s pay wall.




Read more:
It’s not ‘fair’ and it won’t work: an argument against the ACCC forcing Google and Facebook to pay for news


In fact, having their content pop up in search results, or shared on social media, helps Australian media companies to attract readers and sell subscriptions – something that now accounts for roughly half the revenues of some leading players such as The Australian.

All you get for “free” is a snippet of a line or two from the search.

For instance, when I searched for news about recently deceased US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I got this:

If you can figure out the full content of the article from that snippet, you should be using your superpowers for other, more lucrative purposes.

Beware the politics

There is a very real risk this misguided code will end up becoming law.

An overzealous regulator has proposed something that stands to benefit the big media companies, who are – not surprisingly – strongly for it.

Those same media companies have huge influence over public perceptions and the fate of politicians. It will be a brave elected representative who pushes back on the proposed code and draft legislation.

But if politicians were serious about resolving the real issue at stake in all of this, they would act more directly.

Like newspapers all around the world, Australian media and journalists are under pressure – and one thing most people agree on is that high-quality news and journalism is critical to a well-functioning democracy.




Read more:
Platform regulation in Australia is just the start. Facebook and Google are fighting a global battle


Whatever the market forces that have slashed the funding of such journalism, there is a strong case for government intervention. But if the Australian government wants to subsidise high-quality journalism, it should do it itself.

With the 10-year bond rate less than 1%, it would cost the government just A$18 million a year to fund the interest bill on A$2 billion of media subsidies a year. That’s 72 cents per Australian a year.

And all without driving away the hugely valuable services of companies like Google and Facebook that Australian consumers love.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Chinese reveal their journalists in Australia were questioned in foreign interference investigation


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Australian Federal Police and ASIO raided two Chinese journalists in June as part of an investigation into foreign interference in Australia.

The previously unpublicised action has come to light via Chinese media reports, in the same week that two Australian reporters fled China amid fears for their security and in a blaze of publicity.

The Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese authorities, said ASIO had questioned the Chinese journalists, seized computers and smartphones, and asked them not to report the incident.

The raids, undertaken under a warrant, were connected to the investigation into allegations of attempted Chinese infiltration of the NSW parliament through the office of NSW Labor state MP Shaoquett Moselmane, and in particular his part-time staffer John Zhang. Both Moselmane and Zhang have denied any wrong doing.

Moselmane is on leave from the parliament and suspended from the ALP.

Part of the investigation was into a group Zhang had on WeChat, a Chinese social media platform, that included the journalists as well as Chinese scholars. The ABC reported on Wednesday that two Chinese scholars on the chat group subsequently had their Australian visas cancelled.

The timing of the raids on the journalists coincided with raids on Moselmane and Zhang.

Asked about the Global Times claim, the Chinese embassy in Canberra said in a statement: “We have provided consular support to Chinese journalists in Australia and made representations with relevant Australian authorities to safeguard legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens.”

Citing a “source” the Global Times said: “Australia flagrantly infringed on the legitimate rights and interests of journalists from Chinese media and institutions in Australia in the name of a possible violation of Australia’s anti-foreign interference law”.

The Chinese have sat on the information about their journalists for more than two months.

This week the ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith were rushed out of China after Australian government concern for their security.

Last week multiple Chinese security officials arrived after midnight at the homes of Birtles and Smith, in Beijing and Shanghai respectively. They were told they couldn’t leave the country without answering questions.

The men had been making arrangements to depart, on advice from the Australian foreign affairs department, after Australian journalist Cheng Lei, who worked for China’s English-language state broadcaster CGTN, was recently taken into custody.

The Chinese government says Cheng is suspected of activities endangering China’s national security.

Birtles and Smith contacted Australian officials following the late night visits, and were placed under diplomatic protection, with negotiations undertaken to enable them to return to Australia.

The Chinese made the journalists’ exit conditional on their being interviewed. Smith said the interview included some questions about Cheng whom he had only met once, in passing.

In a full-on attack, the Global Times wrote: “Freedom of the press has become political correctness for Australian authorities. When they spread fake information, smear and attack other countries, they call it ‘freedom of the press’, but when they see information they don’t want to see, they choose to crack down for political purposes, experts said.

“Chinese journalists in Australia strictly comply with Australian laws and have good professional conduct.”

The article said that in the past 20 years, “Australia has passed more than 60 rules restricting ‘press freedom’.

“Australia’s major media outlets launched a joint campaign on October 21, 2019 to protest government restrictions on press freedom, by blacking out copy on front pages.

“Australian authorities have not been satisfied with only extending their black hands to domestic media, and have blatantly raided the residences of Chinese journalists in Australia, regardless of the basic norms of international relations and China-Australia relations, analysts said.

“Analysts said what Australia did was not just driven by Australia’s traditional ideological bias, but also showed that it’s a follower of ‘Uncle Sam’”, the Global Times said.

It also accused Australia of having “hyped” the Cheng case.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

If Facebook really pulls news from its Australian sites, we’ll have a much less compelling product



Shutterstock

Rob Nicholls, UNSW

Facebook has announced it will ban publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram if a proposal to force tech giants to pay for news becomes law.

The announcement follows the release of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s draft news media bargaining code, under which Google and Facebook would be forced to pay for news on their sites to help fund public interest journalism. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced in April the code would be mandatory.

On its website, Facebook Australia’s Will Easton said:

Assuming this draft code becomes law, we will reluctantly stop allowing publishers and people in Australia from sharing local and international news on Facebook and Instagram. This is not our first choice – it is our last. But it is the only way to protect against an outcome that defies logic and will hurt, not help, the long-term vibrancy of Australia’s news and media sector.

Google is campaigning against the same draft code, telling users of Google Search and YouTube the services would be under threat unless the government dumped its proposed revenue-sharing laws.




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


Facebook risks making its products less compelling

If Facebook follows through with this threat, it will potentially lead to very uncompelling content on both Facebook and Instagram. Can you imagine Instagram or Facebook without the ABC or Australian news sources?

How are you going to share interesting information with family and friends without being able to put links into posts?

Facebook claims the ACCC code “misunderstands the dynamics of the internet”. But it seems Facebook misunderstands how mandatory industry codes work. If you want to be a platform business in Australia, you have to follow the relevant code. If not, you can exit.

The ACCC code is similar to the franchising code of conduct. For instance, if I want to set up a pizza franchise in Australia, as a franchisee I have to abide by the franchising code of conduct.

Those are the rules of the game in Australia because there’s a recognised power imbalance between franchisors and franchisees. The same goes for news media businesses and social media platforms.

Facebook’s public response focuses largely on the exchange of money for news content but the ACCC code is much broader than that; it’s not just a way for news media businesses to be paid. It recognises Australian news content on social media platforms provides value to both sides and any resulting payment is simply a net of that value.

On the other hand, Facebook has suggested it will have to pay for every bit of news that appears on its platforms. In fact, the code allows for the private values of each news media business to be revealed during negotiations, which may end up in a price that is actually very low for Facebook, or even free.

The ACCC allows for both the news media businesses and platform businesses to negotiate, but Facebook’s threat today suggests they are in no mood for negotiation.

A blanket ban

If Facebook sticks to its claims, it would need to implement a blanket ban on all Australian news media businesses.

This proposition isn’t compelling because it means no news at all. And then there’s the issue of fringe news and information sources.

You could argue citizen journalists and amateur news content creators aren’t media businesses, so you’ll still have them – but they won’t have the checks and balances in place required by the media industry.

Sources such as QAnon actively and deliberately spread misinformation and will also remain. These sources could cause irreparable damage if they go unchecked or without any reliable rebuttal.

A calculated, commercial response

Facebook’s position is a commercial one and presumably has been carefully thought through.

To the extent Facebook fails to go ahead with the threat of removing all news for Australian users, the platform will inevitably be captured by the ACCC code.

If they were to post news without paying, the ACCC would likely come down on Facebook. The penalties could be as high as 10% of Facebook’s annual revenue in Australia.

What about Facebook News?

Facebook News offers news content from approved publishers (who are paid), collated for users to consume within the Facebook platform. The service launched last year in the US and could have been a viable option for Australia’s news media businesses.

But this service wasn’t offered early enough to Australia. The current debacle is a result of both Facebook and Google holding back in negotiations when there could have been a voluntary code of conduct much earlier.

Voluntary codes are non-mandatory sets of standards that aim to help organisations such as industry associations deal with their members and customers. They only apply to those who sign up to them.

Initially, the ACCC was directed to try to negotiate a voluntary code and the change to a mandatory one was driven by the failure of these negotiations.

It’s Facebook’s failure to make a sensible offer early enough that has landed it in this position.

At the end of the day, if Facebook follows through on its threat, we’ll end up with a platform that is much less appealing. More than anything else, that’s likely to drive the decline of Facebook.




Read more:
In a world first, Australia plans to force Facebook and Google to pay for news (but ABC and SBS miss out)


The Conversation


Rob Nicholls, Associate professor in Business Law. Director of the UNSW Business School Cybersecurity and Data Governance Research Network, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Facebook and Google used to be the future of news. But now media companies need more strings to their bow



Kedar Dhond/Unsplash, CC BY

James Meese, RMIT University and Edward Hurcombe, Queensland University of Technology

Given the recent commentary about the reforms proposed for the news media sector, you would be forgiven for thinking Google and Facebook are the only game in town.

The planned reforms arose from last year’s Digital Platforms Inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which focused squarely on the corporate behaviour of these two tech behemoths.

It is clear Google and Facebook will be the first platforms regulated under the draft mandatory code that will potentially force them to pay for content produced by Australian news media companies. The move is a response to what the ACCC describes as “a significant bargaining power imbalance […] between Australian news media businesses and Google and Facebook”.

This idea that news companies are essentially stuck with Google and Facebook, for better or worse, is a common view. Yet while that might have been true a few years ago, media companies are realising there are other ways to cultivate readers, and there’s no need to be beholden to tech platforms that generate clicks but don’t want to pay for the privilege.

In the mid-2010s, many news companies seemed to follow Facebook’s every move. When Facebook promoted video, the media invested in video. When it down-ranked clickbait headlines, content writers frantically altered their style to maintain their presence in the news feed. Newsrooms have had a similarly dependent (albeit less direct) relationship with Google.

The focus on adapting to Google and Facebooks’s algorithms completely changed newsroom practices over the past decade, as journalists have weighed editorial considerations against audience metrics.

Is this still the case?

This dependency developed at a time when major platforms, particularly Facebook, were engaging substantially with the distribution of news. But in recent years this trend has declined, as governments have begun to regulate platforms in response to concerns over “fake news”.

Facebook performed perhaps the most public pivot, changing its algorithm in January 2018 to promote content from users’ friends and family. As a result, traffic to news sites fell, leaving profit-starved media companies to pursue alternative strategies or simply lay off staff.




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


In our research, published earlier this year, we spoke to 15 Australian journalists and editors who had collectively worked across 11 media companies after the dust had settled from the 2019 crisis.

We asked them whether their companies still depend on Facebook for traffic, or whether they have moved to other platforms, or are now doing something else entirely to cultivate their readership.

Breaking up with Facebook

Many respondents, particularly those who had worked at newer companies focused on social media, revealed they had followed the demands of the Facebook algorithm at times. They had pivoted to video and had focused on share counts. However, respondents working at older media companies also noted that lots of readers still visited their publication’s home page, which challenges the idea that companies depend totally on Facebook.

Companies were also exploring different ways of generating revenue. These included placing ads inside content (known as native advertising) and holding events.

The standout trend, however, was a renewed focus on subscriptions, ensuring that a certain percentage of readers actually paid money for the news product at some point.

The Conversation (which does not charge for access to its content) was one of the newsrooms that saw a steep drop in traffic as a result of the January 2018 algorithm change. As such, it has pivoted its digital strategy to prioritise the channels over which it has the most control, particularly its daily newsletter.

That’s not to say companies have stopped trying to engage with big platforms. Many are consciously trying to make their news easy to find via Google search (a process called search engine optimisation. Some companies (including The Conversation) have also begun distributing news through Instagram (which is owned by Facebook).

Yet although the big platforms are doubtless here to stay, our research reveals a distinctly changed relationship between news and social media, compared with the past decade. Many companies, particularly newer ones like Buzzfeed and Vice, previously built huge audiences off the back of social media, and grew at a dizzying rate as a result. Now, companies are more interested in securing a stable revenue stream than in harvesting clicks.

The pandemic effect

This has become even more important amid the economic chaos caused by COVID-19. Advertising spending has dried up, leading to another round of media industry layoffs.

This suggests news media are still struggling to secure an alternative income stream to plug the hole in advertising revenue. The big question is whether big tech platforms will step in and help fill the gap by making financial contributions to news providers. Google’s current campaign against the draft mandatory code suggests they are deeply unwilling to do this.




Read more:
Google’s ‘open letter’ is trying to scare Australians. The company simply doesn’t want to pay for news


Our research shows the relationship between news media and big tech platforms is far from straightforward. This is supported by a recent survey, which found that while many young people access news through social media, older people still prefer television or news websites. Not every Australian gets their news via social media.

There may come a time when platforms become the central access point for news, but it hasn’t happened yet. This doesn’t mean the ACCC should abandon platform regulation, but it does mean news companies are probably wise to find other ways of reaching their readers while they still can.The Conversation

James Meese, Research fellow, RMIT University and Edward Hurcombe, Research associate, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

ABC has for too long been unwilling to push back against interference – at its journalists’ expense



Wes Mountain/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Denis Muller, University of Melbourne

For those who watch the affairs of the ABC through the eyes of a critical friend, the removal of Emma Alberici, made public on August 21, is deeply disturbing.

It is the climax to a destructive series of events that began more than two years ago and once again draws attention to two serious weaknesses in the ABC’s management arrangements.

One is structural: the editor-in-chief is fatally compromised in that role by also being managing director. The managing director has corporate responsibilities that conflict with his or her editorial responsibilities every time the government tightens the financial screws.

That is not a reflection on David Anderson’s character or probity; it is the inevitable consequence of having the one person in both roles.

It also happens that Anderson – like his ill-fated predecessor Michelle Guthrie – is not a journalist. This makes it hard for him to give the kind of editorial leadership the ABC requires.




Read more:
David Anderson’s appointment as ABC managing director is a relief and will further steady the broadcaster


The second weakness is cultural. This long pre-dates Anderson’s term and is the product of sustained hostility from successive Coalition governments going back to the start of the Howard prime ministership in 1996.

The preceding 12 years of the Hawke-Keating governments had hardly been a golden age for the ABC, but it generally got year-on-year funding increases.

And in the tough-minded minister for communications, Michael Duffy, it had a defender in cabinet who was prepared to confront Hawke and other ministers infuriated by some of the ABC’s reporting.

As for the three years of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd interlude, Labor was too busy tearing itself to pieces to bother with the ABC.

Former Prime Minister John Howard
Concerted government attacks on the ABC began under John Howard.
Mark Graham/AAP

Now, according to Anderson, after six years of cumulative budget cuts by the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison administrations, the total effective reduction in ABC funding will amount to A$105.9 million per year by 2022.

And as for defenders in cabinet, the present communications minister, Paul Fletcher, is as mute as a swan.

Clearly all this has sapped morale.

In September 2018, a dossier compiled by Michelle Guthrie was leaked, revealing an email in which Justin Milne, as chair of the ABC, told her to get rid of Alberici, declaring the government “hate her”.

Over the preceding months, the government had repeatedly criticised stories Alberici had done in her role as chief economics correspondent.

Guthrie’s dossier came to light in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald at a time when the ABC had decided to sack her. In the ensuing “firestorm” – Milne’s word – he was consumed as well.




Read more:
ABC inquiry finds board knew of trouble between Milne and Guthrie, but did nothing


Milne had been concerned also with the work of political editor Andrew Probyn. He wanted Guthrie to “shoot” Probyn because the government hated him too and his continued presence was putting at risk half-a-billion dollars in funding for the ABC.

Assuming Milne and Guthrie were telling the truth, there could not be a clearer instance of how the government was using funding to undermine the ABC’s editorial independence.

The effects of this sustained intimidation are felt a long way down the ABC’s editorial food chain.

In May 2018, Barnaby Joyce accepted a reported $150,000 fee to appear with his lover on Channel Seven and talk about the affair that ended Joyce’s marriage and was a breach of the ministerial code of conduct. The ABC asked me to write a commentary on it.

I filed an article saying Joyce’s decision to take money for telling a story that concerned his public duties called into question his fitness for public office.

There was an awkward response from within the ABC indicating some disquiet further up the line. Would I mind not saying that about Joyce?

The rest of that exchange was off the record, but suffice to say I minded very much and withdrew the article. It later appeared unchanged in The Conversation and The Age.

That incident – small in itself but large in principle – revealed a malaise in editorial leadership at several levels.

Four months later came the revelations in Guthrie’s dossier about Milne’s attempts to have Probyn and Alberici sacked. It seems reasonable to infer word was filtering down from the top that if the ABC wanted to avoid yet more trouble from the government, it had better mind its manners.

Former ABC chair Justin Milne and former managing director Michelle Guthrie
Justin Milne told Michelle Guthrie to sack Emma Alberici and Andrew Probyn because the government hated them.
Joel Carrett/AAP

Alberici is now gone anyway, part of a wave of 200 redundancies announced by Anderson in June in response to the latest round of budget cuts.

It is clear from a leak of correspondence between her lawyer and the ABC the parting was anything but amicable, having finished up in the Fair Work Commission.

Her position as chief economics correspondent had been abolished and she was offered positions as a presenter. Alberici tweeted she wanted a reporting job.

So the ghosts of Justin Milne, Malcolm Turnbull and Michelle Guthrie continue to haunt the ABC.

The board that presided over the Milne-Guthrie implosion is still largely intact, despite having come out badly from a Senate inquiry into that debacle.

The committee of inquiry said:

This catalogue of events may give rise to the perception that the ABC Board had not been sufficiently active in protecting either the ABC’s independence from political interference or its own integrity.

And the structural and cultural weaknesses laid bare by the saga remain.

The strategy the Howard government developed for dealing with the ABC – funding cuts, pointless inquiries and cultural warfare – is being followed to the letter by the present government.

2017 was a vintage year, and sums up the problems:

  • Abbott’s cuts from three years earlier were working their way through the system

  • Pauline Hanson, smarting from a Four Corners investigation, secured a promise from the government to hold an inquiry into whether the ABC and SBS operated on a “level playing field” (Answer: yes they did)

One of history’s many lessons is that appeasement does not work. Editorial executives have one over-riding responsibility: to provide a safe environment in which their staff can do independent journalism, regardless of corporate, political or economic interests.




Read more:
Why the ABC, and the public that trusts it, must stand firm against threats to its editorial independence


Part of that is having the professional experience to understand what is involved, which includes absorbing the bullying that comes from powerful people and, where necessary, hitting back.

There has been no sign the ABC’s journalists have been getting that kind of protection, least of all from the board.

Instead, they are at the mercy of a vindictive government, urged on by its mates in News Corporation, which has a vested interest in weakening the ABC and shamelessly campaigns for exactly that.

The original version of this article contained a reference to an email concerning the coverage of marriage equality on the ABC. The author has subsequently learnt more about the origins and context of that email and acknowledges that the context as presented in the original article was wrong. That passage has been removed.The Conversation

Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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




Andrea Carson, La Trobe University and Andrew Dodd, University of Melbourne

Have you used Google lately and been greeted by a yellow warning saying that the way Australians search on Google is under threat?

To understand why these messages are appearing, Media Files interviewed former chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Professor Allan Fels, and CEO of the Public Interest Journalism Initiative (PIJI), Anna Draffin (full recording above, recorded from home due to the pandemic).




Read more:
Google’s ‘open letter’ is trying to scare Australians. The company simply doesn’t want to pay for news


This episode of Media Files is about world-first laws to be introduced later this year that will force Google and Facebook to pay for news on their sites to help fund public interest journalism.

The yellow warning messages by Google (which also appear on its sister site, YouTube) aim to garner public support for a campaign to pressure the federal government to dump revenue-sharing laws planned for later this year.

In a similar vein, Facebook’s Australian and New Zealand director of public policy, Mia Garlick, argued in the Sydney Morning Herald before the draft laws were released, that Facebook already provided top value to media outlets with

billions of opportunities for publishers to monetise their stories, gain new paying subscribers, serve ads, and keep Australians on their websites.

And while Allan Fels said he’s not surprised by the tech giants fighting back against the new law, the public will expect the tech giants to “suck it and see”.

“I think people will ask Google and Facebook to ‘suck it and see’ to see what turns out instead of just going home with a cricket bat or baseball bat,” said Fels.

“It’s normal, it’s par for the course, in ACCC matters, that parties make threats […] with jobs, investment, higher prices, leave the country. Everything!”.

Fels believes the Morrison government may well respond with a new digital tax if Google or Facebook pulls some business out of Australia, like it did in Spain in 2014. Then, the Spanish government charged Google copyright fees for using news snippets, so Google shut down its news service.

“Personally, I think that the government has got this huge stick in the closet if Google walks or partly walks, and that is to put on a digital tax,” Fels said, adding that

A digital tax is being talked about globally, mainly at the OECD. And virtually every member of the OECD wants to put a digital tax on the platforms except the US. Certainly the US under Donald Trump […] But even if the US continue to oppose it, I think a lot of countries are just going to proceed with their own digital tax.

How did we get here?

Following the ACCC digital platforms inquiry report last year, the consumer watchdog recommended the two tech giants pay Australia’s major newsrooms (excluding the SBS and ABC) an annual fee to use news on their sites.

Anna Draffin and the big media companies agree with the ACCC’s findings that media companies cannot fairly compete with the digital platforms to win advertising revenue, and that this revenue shortfall has led to masthead closures and journalism job cuts.

Draffin said its introduction is urgent as COVID-19 has accelerated the demise of many news outlets, particularly in regional Australia.

At first, the ACCC was to oversee a voluntary code with the technology companies negotiating in good faith with the big news outlets.

But, unhappy with the progress of the bargaining talks, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced in April the code would be mandatory. The government released draft laws in July sparking Google’s fear campaign warning its users that Australians “search experience will be hurt by new regulation”.

In an August 24 blog post, Google argues it helps “more than 20 million Australians” and is unlikely to shut down Australian news from its search engines.

A screen shot of a blog post from Google Australia.
Google Australia’s blog post said the firm helps ‘more than 20 million Australians and over one million businesses in Australia.’
Google

Facebook contends news is just a fraction of the information on its platform and the mandatory code is unnecessary.

ACCC chair Rod Sims, on the other hand, argues that

News content brings significant benefits to the digital platforms, far beyond the limited direct revenue generated from advertising shown against a news item […] News media businesses should be paid a fair amount in return for these benefits.“

The mandatory code includes transparency measures to force the digital platforms to share data and insights about how it uses algorithms to rank news content online.

Draffin said while the proposed laws are welcome, at this stage, they do not include the public broadcasters nor do they include smaller newsrooms with annual turnover under A$150,000.

“The code alone isn’t necessarily going to be the solution particularly for that [smaller] end of the market,” said Draffin.

“New market entrants would largely sit outside of any benefit from the code. So there could be room for a loan or venture capital fund for start-ups as a separate policy setting,” she said.




Read more:
In a world first, Australia plans to force Facebook and Google to pay for news (but ABC and SBS miss out)


The draft laws force the companies to negotiate for up to three months or face a binding binary dispute resolution where independent arbiters determine the winning bid among the bargaining parties. Breaches of the news laws would attract fines of up to $10 million or 10% of a company’s annual domestic turnover.

Public consultation into the draft mandatory bargaining code closes this Friday, August 28.


Additional credits

Theme music: Susie Wilkins.

Image

ShutterstockThe Conversation

Andrea Carson, Associate Professor, Department of Politics, Media and Philosophy, La Trobe University and Andrew Dodd, Director of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Killing the chicken to scare the monkey’: what Jimmy Lai’s arrest means for Hong Kong’s independent media



Kin Cheung/AP

Brendan Clift, University of Melbourne

The arrest this week of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong reveals the repressive reality of the city’s new made-in-China national security law.

It also sends a sharp signal to the remaining independent media in the territory: watch your step, or you could be next.

Lai, his two sons and four top executives of the Next Digital media group were all arrested under the new law. On the same day, police raided the offices of Next’s flagship publication, Apple Daily, deploying over 200 officers to search the premises for almost nine hours.

China imposed the national security law in June, bypassing the local legislature and breaching the principle of non-interference in the city’s governance.

The new law established a comprehensive PRC-style national security regime overriding aspects of Hong Kong’s common law legal system.

The national security law is designed to make dissent all but impossible in Hong Kong, including in the city’s once-freewheeling but gradually diminished independent media.

Jimmy Lai had been an outspoken critic of the government — and knew his arrest was likely.
VERNON YUEN/EPA

What the new law means for journalists

Lai and the others were arrested under article 29 of the new law, which criminalises collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security.

Banned acts include collaborating with a foreign entity to impose sanctions on Hong Kong or China, seriously disrupting the making of laws or policies, or provoking hatred of the government among Hong Kong residents.

Although Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is a grassroots, homegrown affair, Beijing has sought to portray it as the result of foreign meddling. Hong Kong’s last two leaders, Carrie Lam and CY Leung, both alleged foreign forces were behind the protests that took place during their terms.




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Beijing has already signalled that collusion will be broadly interpreted under the law.

Police have not disclosed the specifics of Lai’s offences, but his July meeting with US Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is likely to be under the microscope, as is an opinion piece he wrote for The New York Times in May.

Lai’s status as an influential media owner and prominent pro-democracy activist has positioned him in Beijing’s crosshairs. He has been the target of extraordinary vitriol from mainland state media and was arrested by Hong Kong police in February and April on charges of participating in an illegal assembly.

Lai’s case is undoubtedly intended to serve as a warning — “killing the chicken to scare the monkey,“ to borrow a Chinese saying — and an inducement for the city’s journalists to self-censor, lest they fall foul of the new law.

For instance, an editorial calling for Hong Kong’s constitutionally guaranteed autonomy to be preserved could be interpreted by a zealous prosecutor as inciting secession under articles 20 and 21 of the law.

Hong Kong’s protests have dwindled since the new security law came into place this year.
Vincent Yu/AP

An uncertain future for independent media

Although self-censorship has long been a concern, Hong Kong has traditionally enjoyed a vibrant free press. In 2002, Reporters Without Borders ranked it 18th in its inaugural World Press Freedom Index.

However, by 2020, the city had plunged to 80th. (China, meanwhile, ranked 177th of 180 countries.) The application of the national security law in Hong Kong will no doubt see the territory’s ranking tumble even further.

Apple Daily’s days appear to be numbered. Similar fates could befall other outspoken independent media, like the crowd-funded Hong Kong Free Press, which launched in 2015 amid rising concerns over declining press freedoms in the city. This was around the same time the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s venerable English-language daily, was acquired by the mainland conglomerate Alibaba.




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Over the years, much of Hong Kong’s media has been bought up by China-owned or -affiliated entities, some of which are ultimately controlled Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong. More than half of Hong Kong’s media owners are now members of political bodies on the mainland.

The public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong has remained editorially independent, but it is under review again, having recently fallen foul of the local regulator for criticising the police handling of pro-democracy protests in a manner that was

irresponsible, and could be regarded as a hate speech with the effect of inciting hatred against the police.

International media still operate in Hong Kong relatively unrestrained, but visa refusals for foreign journalists suggest this is changing.

In recent years, Financial Times editor Victor Mallet’s visa renewal was denied after he chaired a discussion with a pro-independence politician, and New York Times reporter Chris Buckley’s Hong Kong work permit was denied, without any specific reason, months after he was also kicked out of China.

The Times has moved some of its former China- and Hong Kong-based reporters to South Korea and Taiwan in response. However, foreign journalists who engage in critical reporting on China and Hong Kong could be in breach of the national security law regardless of where they are based, as the law applies extraterritorially and to non-Chinese citizens as well as nationals.

Blank Post-it sticky notes have been posted around Hong Kong to protest the breadth of the new national security law.
TYRONE SIU/Reuters

Speaking for the party’s will

China’s constitution purports to preserve freedom of expression. It has never met the promise of its terms. In 2016, President Xi Jinping told the country’s press,

all news media run by the party must work to speak for the party’s will and its propositions and protect the party’s authority and unity.

The guarantees of free speech and a free press under Hong Kong’s Basic Law are now on the same trajectory.

It is unlikely the media in Hong Kong will be nationalised to the extent it is on the mainland. Instead, Beijing is deploying a combination of acquisition, co-optation and intimidation to obtain its compliant silence.The Conversation

Brendan Clift, Teaching Fellow and PhD candidate, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Malaysia’s media crackdowns are being driven by an insecure government highly sensitive to criticism



AHMAD YUSNI/EPA

Ross Tapsell, Australian National University

The recent police interrogations of six Al Jazeera journalists in Malaysia – five of whom are Australian – was not about shaping international reportage or a diplomatic rift.

Rather, it was part of a troubling pattern of crackdowns on the media and freedom of speech in the country, driven by the domestic concerns of an insecure government highly sensitive to criticism.

While the previous government led by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was by no means consistent or perfect, Malaysia was hailed just last year as an example of a country improving on press freedom.

This started to change in March, however, as Muhyiddin Yassin’s new government came to power. Tolerance for criticism and dissent has since been in short supply.

Al Jazeera’s documentary on the plight of migrant workers during COVID-19.

Pattern of repression

The Al Jazeera journalists have been accused of sedition and defamation over a documentary about the government’s treatment of migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Malaysian officials and national television claim the documentary was inaccurate, misleading and unfair.

But these journalists are hardly the only ones to be targeted by the new government.

Steven Gan, chief editor of the trusted online news portal Malaysiakini, is facing contempt of court charges and could be sent to jail over reader comments briefly published on the news site that were apparently critical of the judiciary. Gan’s lawyer warned the case could have a “chilling effect”.

Steven Gan arriving in court this week.
AHMAD YUSNI/EPA

South China Morning Post journalist Tashny Sukamaran has been investigated for reporting on police raids of migrant workers and refugees.

Another journalist, Boo Su-Lyn, is being investigated for publishing the findings of an inquiry into a fire at a hospital in 2016 that left six dead.

A book featuring articles by political analysts and journalists has been banned over the artwork on the cover that allegedly insulted the national coat of arms. Sukamaran and journalists from Malaysiakini have been questioned by police about their involvement.

Opposition politicians have also been questioned by police for tweets and comments they made in the media prior to the new government taking power.

Whistle-blowers are included in this, too. For example, the government this week cancelled the work permit of the migrant worker who was featured in the Al Jazeera documentary.

Why the recent crackdown?

Malaysia’s current coalition government – Perikatan Nasional – was controversially formed earlier this year. The alliance came to power via backdoor politicking and support from the Malaysian king as Mahathir’s dysfunctional coalition imploded.

The new government coalition includes the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party voted out of power in 2018 following a massive corruption scandal. This was the first time Malaysia had changed government in its 60-year history.

With UMNO now back in government, it is perhaps no surprise there are again more crackdowns on the media, as their previous rule saw regular attacks on journalists, activists and opposition figures.




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Malaysia has also become known for its “cybertroopers” – social media commentators similar to “trolls” – who drive heated nationalistic and race-related agendas, and target government critics.

After the Al Jazeera documentary, these cyber-troopers provided fervent support for the government’s actions, arguing it had every right to round up migrants and evict them if it sees fit. Al Jazeera said its journalists were also targeted by cyber-troopers, saying they

faced abuse online, including death threats and disclosure of their personal details over social media.

Shaky government looking to firm up support

There’s another reason for the return of media crackdowns and online-driven activity beyond just the government’s desire to control the media.

It is also tactical as it allows government ministers to respond with firm statements asking security forces to intervene – enabling them to look strong, coherent and nationalistic.

Muhyiddin’s coalition is on shaky ground. It holds a slim majority in parliament and internal party factions have come to dominate political debate, with “party-hopping” becoming increasingly common. Malaysiakini even has a rolling news page regularly updated to track politicians’ changing alliances.

Malaysia’s parliament also finally resumed this week after a long and unstable hiatus, and was described as a “circus”. Politicians shouted over one another, with some trading racist and sexist remarks.

The house speaker, who was part of Mahathir’s administration, was also
controversially replaced. There has been consistent talk of snap polls.

In this environment, politicians who don’t respond forcefully enough in the “culture wars” over documentaries and controversial artwork on book covers, or conform with the online mob on immigration, risk looking weak.




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A ‘new normal’ settling in

A snap election won’t necessarily help Muyhiddin strengthen his position, as parties within the coalition can become rivals during a campaign for certain seats.

But no matter who rules Malaysia in the coming months, the result will likely be a government that is fragile, insecure and worried about its legitimacy. For Malaysians, this is their “new normal”.

The risk for journalists in this “new normal” is further repression and harassment of independent media. As we have seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia, as well as in Australia, the state seems increasingly willing to use legal and regulatory pressure to make sure journalists and whistle-blowers are afraid to speak up.The Conversation

Ross Tapsell, Senior Lecturer in the School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific., Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When Trump attacks the press, he attacks the American people and their Constitution



AAP/Twitter/supplied

Peter Greste, The University of Queensland

Here is a line from the latest safety advisory for reporters issued by the US-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ):

Taking into account the increased levels of violence and tactics used by both police and protesters, ballistic glasses, helmets, and stab vests should be worn. If there is a threat of live ammunition being used, then body armour should be considered.

It is the kind of advice I used to be given before going on assignment to places like Baghdad, Kabul or Mogadishu. But the CPJ is aiming its latest note at US-based reporters more used to covering city hall than documenting running battles between police and demonstrators. It is deeply troubling that an organisation usually advocating for reporters in violent autocratic regimes decides it now has to support those in its own backyard.

One organisation, Bellingcat, has been tracking assaults on journalists since the riots broke out over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. In the first four days of protests, its chief investigator counted more than 100 incidents. (The CPJ counts closer to 200.)

The 101st involved an Australian news crew from Channel Seven. They were beaten while filming outside the White House, as riot police used tear gas and batons to clear the peaceful protesters so President Donald Trump could walk across the street and hold a Bible in front of St John’s Church. (In a speech moments before, Trump had – without irony – declared, “I am your president of law and order”, and “an ally of all peaceful protesters”.)




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The startling number of attacks on journalists does not appear to be an accident. Inevitably, anyone reporting in violent places risks being caught in crossfire. But the numbers suggest something more troubling.

Bellingcat’s investigator Nick Waters, wrote

although in some incidents it is possible the journalists were hit or affected accidentally, in the majority of the cases we have recorded the journalists are clearly identifiable as press, and it is clear that they are being deliberately targeted.

The police actions against journalists might seem futile in our social media age when everyone with a mobile phone has the power to act as a reporter, but that doesn’t stop individual cops from lashing out at those they see as actively monitoring them.

There does not appear to be a coordinated strategy. In the United States, policing is generally a state and city affair, so collusion seems unlikely. The CPJ’s Courtney Radsh said the organisation’s experience of tracking violence towards journalists in some of the world’s most hostile regimes shows that the police step up their attacks when they believe they can get away with it.

In the US, the president himself has frequently derided journalists as “the enemy of the people”, who peddle “fake news”, and on Sunday he issued a tweet describing them as “truly bad people with a sick agenda”.

There is no doubt some journalists have behaved unethically or been loose with the facts, and the news business more broadly has not always covered itself in glory.

But as imperfect as it may be, it remains a vital part of the way a free and open democracy works. It acts as a watchdog on behalf of voters, monitoring the behaviour of institutions like the police and government who are supposed to be acting in the interests of the public.

In so many cases in the protests, journalists have clearly identified themselves verbally, with accreditation, with vests labelled “press”, carrying professional-standard cameras, and by their actions, observing rather than participating in the protests. That observation is rarely comfortable for those in authority, but it is a necessary part of the system.

As a recovering journalist and press freedom advocate, I am of course concerned about assaults of my colleagues. But to be clear, this is not about them. What we are seeing in the United States is an attempt to make the public blind to heavy-handed police tactics.




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The founding fathers of the United States understood that when they wrote the First Amendment into its Constitution, guaranteeing “congress shall pass no law […] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. (The First Amendment also guarantees freedom of religion, the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.) Attack the press, and you attack the very system that has made places like the US and Australia among the safest and most prosperous in the world.

The reason autocrats in Turkey, the Philippines and Egypt throw journalists in prison with such enthusiasm is because they know a free media empowers the public, and threatens their survival.

If Trump is the patriot he claims to be, he will honour the Constitution and defend the press rather than accuse reporters of “doing everything within their power to foment hatred and anarchy”.The Conversation

Peter Greste, Professor of Journalism and Communications, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Digital-only local newspapers will struggle to serve the communities that need them most



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Chrisanthi Giotis, University of Technology Sydney

This week News Corp Australia announced the end of the print editions of 112 suburban and regional mastheads – about one-fifth of all of Australia’s local newspapers. Of those, 36 will close and 76 become purely online publications.

Getting the chop entirely are small regional newspapers such as the Herbert Valley Express in far north Queensland (with a circulation of less than 3,000). Those going digital include free suburban papers such as Sydney’s Manly Daily, established in 1906. (Until as recently as 2017 it came out five times a week. Since 2018 is has been published twice a week.)

Whether the online-only papers can survive remains to be seen. But our research at the Centre for Media Transition suggests it will be hard for them to match what local print editions offered communities.

Losing readers and advertisers

Like print media in general, local newspapers have been squeezed by readers and advertisers moving online. Most of the revenue, even for those with a cover price, has come from advertising. This has been eroded by the likes of Google and Facebook as well as localised classified sites such as Gumtree.




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While this has has happened at slower pace than the loss of the “rivers of gold” for metropolitan newspapers, the “desertification” of local news has progressed steadily. In the decade to 2018, 106 local and regional newspapers closed in Australia, leaving 21 local government areas – 16 in regional areas – without a local newspaper.

Those that have survived have seen their staff slashed, with reporters expected to produce more “content” at the cost of doing the serious reporting that made local newspapers so valuable to their communities.

Local media ‘keystones’

As Danish researcher Rasmus Kleis Nielsen notes in Local Journalism: The decline of newspapers and the rise of digital media (IB Taurus, 2016), local newspapers have been the “keystone” of “local news ecosystems”.

No other local media comes close to the local coverage they provide. “Most of the many stories about local politics produced by the local paper never appear anywhere else,” says Nielsen. Local radio and television have tended to piggyback on their work.




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Without this reporting, local democracy suffers. Research in the United States shows local papers are essential to keep local government accountable.

Local news doesn’t scale

Given declining revenue for traditional print, and the cost of printing, moving to digital-only platforms was perhaps inevitable.

But the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the move by killing off advertising from local businesses such as restaurants and pubs. In April News Corp suspended the print runs of 60 local papers. Just three – the Wentworth Courier, Mosman Daily and North Shore Times, serving Sydney’s most affluent suburbs – will resume, thanks to their lucrative property advertising.




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Making the rest viable as digital-only local news services is going to be tricky for two reasons.

The first is to do with how online advertising works. The second is how readers in these areas relate to the news, and their willingness to pay for online news.

A key characteristic of the historical readership and advertising markets for local newspaper is their “bounded” nature. But the defining characteristics of online news and advertising is “scaleability”.

Once all newspapers could largely dictate prices to advertisers. This was particularly the case with local papers, often the only game in town. But the game has changed. What they can charge for online advertising is a fraction of what they once could for print.

Most metro newspapers responded with plans to grow their readership by providing their content free online. The idea was that more readers would help maintain them as an attractive advertising platform.

This has generally not proved the winning strategy they had hoped. So papers from The Age to The Daily Telegraph have been moving to paywalls, enticing their print buyers to online subscriptions.

Unwillingness to pay

Our research suggests doing the same with non-metropolitan newspapers is likely to be harder. Readers in rural and regional areas are less willing than those in cities to pay for online news services.

As part of our report Regional News Media: State of Play published in 2019, we surveyed 266 people living in regional and rural areas, demographically representative of the population of country Australia.

Just 14% indicated willingness to pay for news online, with 49% saying they would not (and 37% unsure).



The News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra has found similar reluctance to pay. The results of its Digital News Report Australia 2019 show just 12% of regional news consumers had paid for online news, compared with 16% of urban news consumers. More detailed research produced for our report shows the difference is starkest for subscriptions.



Poorest communities hurt the most

That unwillingness to pay for online content may change if it’s the only way to get local news. Attitudes to online subscriptions are shifting, and people do value local news. Research commissioned for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Digital Platforms Inquiry found 71% of the population rated it as important as national news for social participation.

But the portents aren’t great for quality local news coverage – particularly in regional areas. The likelihood is further desertification of the local news landscape, with poorer communities most affected.

This is confirmed by US research that shows the people with the least access to local news are often “the poorest, least educated and most isolated”.

As Matthew Hindman of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy has noted: “Even the clearest local digital success stories employ only a few reporters – far less than the number laid off from the papers in their own cities.

“Worrisome, too, is the fact they have found the most traction in the affluent, social-capital rich communities that need them least.”The Conversation

Chrisanthi Giotis, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, School of Communication, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.