First, there was a highly questionable story in The Australian about China allegedly weaponising coronavirus, with the headline “‘Virus warfare’ in China files” splashed across the front page.
The author of the article, Sharri Markson, claims a document written by Chinese scientists and Chinese public health officials in 2015 discussed the weaponisation of a SARS coronavirus.
According to the article, the document was headed “The Unnatural Origin of SARS and New Species of Man-Made Viruses as Genetic Bioweapons”.
Markson reported the US State Department had obtained the document in the course of investigating the origin of COVID-19. In her article and others that followed, there was talk of a third world war in which biological weapons would be deployed.
However, Chengxin Pan, an associate professor at Deakin University, offered a different explanation for the document’s origins. He said in a tweet the document Markson cited was in fact a book, the contents of which could be found on the internet or at a Chinese online bookstore.
Dominic Meagher, an economist at the Lowy Institute with an extensive China background, tweeted the book was
pretty clearly an idiotic conspiracy theory about how the US and Japan had introduced SARS to China.
The ABC program Media Watch raised these questions and more about the article’s credibility.
Markson has replied that the Chinese Foreign Ministry and Global Times newspaper viewed the document as legitimate and not a conspiracy theory. She said while none of the critics quoted by Media Watch were bioweapons experts, she had interviewed multiple high-level specialists in biological weapons compliance.
The ethical problems here are twofold. First, there are clearly questions about the provenance of the document. Was the document uncovered by a US State Department investigation or is it a book available for public sale?
It is a basic fact that colours the entire article, and the questions are not resolved by Markson’s response.
Second, the way the story is framed as revealing Chinese weaponising of biological material is highly alarmist. This generates further public anxiety about COVID-19 and adds to the climate of Sinophobia in Australia. The justification for doing so is, on the available evidence, highly questionable.
In a pandemic or any other emergency, the first ethical duty of the media is to report accurately and soberly, and specifically not to induce unjustified anxiety or panic.
Naming and shaming
In another major ethical lapse, the Australian Financial Review ran a story that named and shamed a Sydney man who had tested positive for the virus. To make it worse, the newspaper put his photo on the front page.
This was wrong and irresponsible for several reasons.
The man had visited several barbecue shops across Sydney while unknowingly positive. When this became known as part of the media’s general contact-tracing publicity, he was dubbed “Barbecue Man” by the Sydney media.
So he was already a figure of fun when the Financial Review identified him. Its excuse for naming him? He was a financial analyst doing due diligence on the Barbecues Galore chain. The AFR’s editor-in-chief, Michael Stutchbury, claimed this meant it was in the public interest to identify him as carrying COVID.
That is absolute drivel. There is no rational connection between the man’s health and the health of the barbecue business.
Other media, including the Daily Mail and news.com, jumped on the bandwagon and named him, too. Both outlets even ran a photo grabbed from Facebook of the man and his wife. No moral compass whatever.
If the media go on doing this, it will discourage people from coming forward for testing. Who wants to see themselves plastered over the front page and given names like Barbecue Man? That is where the irresponsibility lies.
The Age was guilty of something similar a couple of months ago when it published a map of the weekend movements of a young man who was unwittingly COVID-positive and wrote an article holding him up to ridicule.
This kind of media behaviour is mediaeval: like putting people in the stocks and chucking rotten tomatoes at them. And it is a gross breach of privacy. A person’s health is among the most private classes of information that exists. To breach it for the sake of a cheap laugh is indefensible.
Avoiding misleading information
These weren’t the only problematic reports. On May 13, the Australian Press Council found a subhead in the Herald Sun saying “Six People Died During Pfizer Trial” was misleading because it implied the vaccine caused the deaths, when in fact the deaths were not related to the vaccine.
Four of the six deceased had been given a placebo during the trial, and the other two deaths were not related to the vaccine.
The Herald Sun defended the subhead on the basis the story said the US Food and Drug Administration had been told about these deaths because they occurred during the period of the trial.
That is materially different from implying – as the headline clearly did – that the vaccine caused the deaths.
The press council said that newspapers needed to take more than usual care to avoid misleading the public in the midst of a pandemic. And by failing to do so, the Herald Sun had breached two of the council’s principles — one concerning accuracy and the other concerning fairness and balance.
In an atmosphere where there is already a degree of resistance to being vaccinated, the Herald Sun subhead was clearly a beat-up with the potential to harm the public interest.
So, in the space of a couple of weeks elements of the print media have sought to capitalise without justification on public anxieties about China and the safety of COVID vaccines, and have pilloried an innocent man while at the same time committing a gross breach of his personal privacy.
In an age when the public must rely increasingly on the mass media for reliable and responsible information — since social media has shown itself to be unreliable and irresponsible — these newspapers have abrogated their first duty to the public.
Tony Walker, La Trobe UniversityWhen China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, summoned journalists to the Chinese embassy last week, this was not an occasion for polite exchanges on a troubled relationship between Beijing and Canberra.
Cheng was intent on communicating a forceful message to Australian reporters that China was intent on fighting back against what it regards as a great wall of unfavourable publicity about its treatment of its Uyghur minority.
In some media reporting of the press conference, the exercise was referred to as a “charm offensive”. However, a more accurate characterisation would be to describe it as an attempt by China to draw a line under increasingly negative foreign reporting of its activities.
This reporting is having real world consequences for China’s image abroad. It is inviting pushback from an international community that is mobilising against Chinese overreach. Beijing will not be insensitive to the risks of brand damage to China’s reputation, or risks of sanctions.
The Biden administration’s canvassing of a potential boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China will have got Beijing’s attention. If countries, led by the United States, stay away this would represent a significant loss of face.
Global campaign against unfavourable reporting
Senior Chinese officials and Uyghurs appeared via video during Cheng’s embassy briefing to refute media accounts of human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region as “Western lies”, “fabrications” and the work of “anti-China forces”.
In its propaganda offensive, China has not been averse to using the “fake news” label, popularised by former US President Donald Trump to assail its critics.
Cheng’s press conference was part of a larger, global campaign against unfavorable reporting in which Beijing has resorted to a combination of bluster and in some cases reprisals against journalists who have cut too close to the bone.
Australian citizen Cheng Lei appears to be a case in point. Cheng, an anchor for state broadcaster China Global Television Network (CGTN), was detained in China last year without explanation, but now stands accused of ill-defined national security breaches.
In private social media posts, she had criticised China’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic. It is not clear whether this is the basis of allegations against her, but no other reasonable explanation has been forthcoming to this point.
China appears to have been particularly displeased by the reporting of the BBC. In February, Beijing banned all BBC broadcasting in China in retaliation for British authorities having revoked the license of the Chinese overseas broadcaster, CGTN. This represented a significant escalation in the conflict between the Chinese authorities and Western media.
What Chinese propaganda is seeking to achieve
Cheng’s propaganda exercise should therefore be seen as part of a global campaign to stifle what China regards as unfair and damaging criticism of its policies at home and abroad under paramount leader Xi Jinping.
If this Canberra media event was designed to dampen negative reporting in the Australian media, however, the campaign is unlikely to work for the simple reason there is little, or no, sign of Beijing reversing its antagonistic behaviour towards Western media.
Scarcely a day passes without criticism of foreign media in Chinese state-controlled outlets. These attacks underscore the gap that exists between Western perceptions of the role of journalists in democratic societies and China’s view that media should serve the interests of the state.
Typical of the sort of criticism levelled at Western media is the following contribution to the nationalistic Global Times by a professor of international relations at Shanghai’s Fudan University.
What some media have done is exaggerate Chinese authorities’ fault in a bid to overthrow the Chinese system. Take the BBC. This British media outlet did not call on the British public to overthrow the British government even if it has miserably failed to effectively curb the spread of COVID-19. This is double standards.
This level of naivete is hard to credit, but it is revealing nevertheless of the gap that exists between Chinese views of the Western media and vice versa.
China’s bluster against Western media may play to nationalist sentiment at home, but it is hardly likely to be effective in neutralising foreign media criticism.
Australian media will not stop providing a platform for legitimate and widely publicised concerns about China’s mistreatment of its minorities; its disrespect for the “one country, two systems” agreements it signed with the UK to facilitate the handover of Hong Kong; its threatening behaviour towards Taiwan; and its expansion of base facilities in disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Beijing’s trade war against Australia smacks of the sort of overreach that may have become a staple of Chinese propaganda in state-run media, but in reality this is not a campaign that serves China’s own interests.
That is assuming Beijing is concerned about promoting itself as a reasonably constructive citizen in its own Indo-Pacific neighborhood.
China’s dismal treatment of journalists
China’s press freedom record leaves a lot to be desired.
In the latest Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index, China rated 177 out of 180. It is by far the world’s largest captor of journalists with at least 121 detained, some in life-threatening conditions.
In March, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China reported an intensification of harassment of foreign reporters and increased use of “visa weaponisation”. This had led to the expulsion of 18 foreign correspondents in the first half of 2020. Others, like ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Michael Smith left because of concerns about being detained..
China regards the FCCC as an “illegal” organisation. As Cedric Alviani, Reporters Without Borders’s East Asian bureau head, said,
In recent years, Chinese regime apparatus has come to consider foreign correspondents as unwanted witnesses and goes to great length to prevent them from collecting information that doesn’t mirror its propaganda.
In a 2019 survey of the 10 “most censored” countries in the world by the Committee to Protect Journalists, China rated fifth behind only Eritrea, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia. It said,
China has the world’s most extensive and sophisticated censorship apparatus. […] Since 2017, no website or social media account is allowed to provide a news service on the internet without the Cyberspace Administration of China’s permission. Internet users are blocked from foreign search engines, news websites, and social media platforms by the Great Firewall. […] Foreign social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are banned.
This is the lived reality for foreign journalists in China in the Xi era, and for Chinese consumers of uncensored news, for that matter.
At no other stage since China began opening to the outside world in the Deng Xiaoping era of the late 1970s have conditions for foreign correspondents in China been more threatening — or more counterproductive from Beijing’s point of view.
China’s war against the foreign media is at a tangent to its proclaimed ambition to continue opening its economy to foreign investment. The anti-Western media campaign jars with hopes that it would become a responsible international stakeholder, as well.
If Ambassador Cheng’s press conference marks a new stage in China’s battles with foreign media, this promises to be a long march.
After almost a year of heated discussion about the News Media Bargaining Code, there will shortly be a new law of the land – one that’s unlikely to be applied to the platforms it was intended to reign in. But that’s not to say it hasn’t done its job.
With some final tweaks expected to the draft legislation, Facebook on Tuesday announced it would restore news for Australian users and strike up commercial agreements with local publishers. It signed its first deal with Seven West media yesterday.
Meanwhile, Facebook threatened to stop providing Australians access to news — and did (while also blocking domestic violence helplines, children’s cancer charities and the Royal Australian College of Physicians).
In return, the federal government said it would stop all advertising campaigns on the platform. Interestingly, it’s this move which most likely “assisted” the recent negotiated outcome with Facebook.
The changes made to the code — other than the opportunity to sell advertising to the Commonwealth again — were small, but important. It’s worth remembering the code’s aim was to balance out the bargaining imbalance between big tech platforms and news media businesses.
Essentially, it provides a mechanism to force a deal when a commercial outcome can’t be reached voluntarily. The code is mandatory, since the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) took the view the platforms would not otherwise get to a commercial offer, let alone a commercial settlement.
As set out by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, there were four changes made that have met Facebook’s needs:
before a digital platform is made subject to the code by being “designated”, the minister must first take into account whether it has reached commercial agreements with news media businesses
the government must give at least one month’s notice of designation to any platform it intends to make subject to the code
the non-discrimination provisions (crafted as an anti-avoidance mechanism) will not be triggered in respect to remuneration amounts or commercial outcomes that arise in the course of usual business practice
final offer arbitration will be a last resort and should be preceded by good faith mediation, provided this lasts no longer than two months.
A major change?
The above amendments made by the government are not major, in terms of changing the scope of the News Media Bargaining Code. However, they do include some important clarifications regarding how the code will operate.
Both Google and Facebook were very concerned the approach of “final offer arbitration” would adversely affect them. In this, if a deal couldn’t be struck, both the platform and media business would have to present their offers and defer to an arbitrator to choose one.
Google and Facebook initially argued for “commercial arbitration”, where the arbitrator acts with more discretion. Commercial arbitration tends to favour the party with the most information or bargaining power.
The compromise of requiring good faith mediation before any compulsory arbitration (whether commercial or final offer arbitration) is a classic dispute resolution approach.
Win some, lose some
The News Media Bargaining Code has changed in a way that is a compromise, but hasn’t lost its original intention. The process of negotiating changes to the code has revealed the private values of Facebook, Google and any similar parties that could be impacted by the code.
The exposure draft, the introduction of the Bill, the Senate committee and Facebook’s petulant actions: all have acted to identify a financial outcome for each of Google, Facebook and the Australian news publishers.
The process has been a classic, but painful, exchange of information that would otherwise have been held close to the players’ respective chests.
For Google, it has shown Google Search must remain untouched, even if this means forking out millions in a matter of days. For Facebook, it has demonstrated that rapidly changing social media offerings (such as trying to remove news in Australia) can’t be done without major complications.
It may be too soon to judge whether Facebook’s approach of taking its lobbying to the brink worked in its favour, or to its detriment. The platform’s first interactions with the new UK Digital Markets Unit (a regulatory regime targeted at big tech firms) will likely shed some light.
And finally, the ACCC can claim it was right in its initial recommendation; after a long drought, there will soon be money flowing to public interest journalism.
The intention of the News Media Bargaining Code was to create an environment where commercial deals would be struck between the platforms and news media businesses in Australia.
Now, under several deals, Google and Facebook will pay Australian news media businesses tens of millions of dollars each year for locally created content.
There’s also a reasonable expectation regional news businesses will receive funds in exchange for regional news — although a clear standard offer is yet to be made by the platforms.
This development will not change the inevitable shift of the news business model to a largely digital environment. But it does balance the value proposition between news creation and news curation.
It has also made clear to Facebook, Google and news media businesses that they exist and operate in a symbiosis. The status of this relationship? Well, it’s complicated.
The federal government is talking tough about making Google and Facebook pay Australian news businesses for linking to, or featuring, these publishers’ content.
The digital platforms have been talking equally tough. Facebook is threatening to remove Australian news stories and Google says it will shut off search to Australia if the government pushes ahead with its “mandatory bargaining code”.
The code is meant to help alleviate the revenue crisis facing news publishers. Over the past two decades they have made deep cuts to newsrooms. Scores of local print papers have become “digital only” or been shut down completely.
If legislated, the code will require the platforms to negotiate payments to news publishers, as well as disclose changes in algorithms affecting traffic to news sites.
But the code is unlikely to do much to fix the crisis faced by journalism in the internet age. It isn’t even a band-aid on the problem.
The traditional commercial news business model is broken beyond repair. If the government wants to save the social benefit of public-interest journalism, it must look elsewhere.
Newspapers didn’t sell news, but readers
To understand why the commercial news model is so broken, we first need to recognise what the primary business of commercial news media has been: attracting an audience that can be sold to advertisers.
Newspapers attracted readers with news and feature journalism that provided public value, but also information of interest such as weather forecasts, sports scores, stock prices, TV and radio guides and comics. Readers even sought out papers for their advertisements – in particular the “classifieds” for jobs, cars and real estate.
Before the internet the newspaper was the only place to access much of this information. This broad bundle of content attracted a wide range of readers, which the economics of newspapers – particularly the cost of producing the journalism – required.
Why the business model is broken
Internet technologies introduced two changes that have dismantled the newspaper business model.
They offered new and better ways to connect buyers and sellers, pulling advertiser spending away from newspapers. More than 70% of revenue for a typical daily newspaper came from advertising. Before 2000 print media attracted nearly 60% of Australian advertiser dollars, according to an analysis for the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Digital Platforms Inquiry. By 2017 it was just 12%.
Australian advertising expenditure by media format and digital platform
Internet technologies also provided better ways to access the non-journalism information that had made the bundled paper valuable to a mass of readers.
Readers also now access news in many other places, through news apps, aggregators and social media feeds such as Twitter, Reddit, Apple News, Flipboard and many others, including Facebook and Google. Research by the University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre published in 2019 found just 30% of Australian news consumers accessed online news directly from news publishers’ websites.
The bargaining code doesn’t solve the main problem
If Google and Facebook are “to blame” for news publishers’ malaise, it is not in the way the bargaining code suggests. Separate from their linking to, or featuring, these publishers’ content, the digital platforms are just more effective vehicles for advertisers seeking to buy consumers’ attention. They serve ads based on consumer interests or in relation to a specific search.
The simple fact is news publishers’ core content is not that important to the platforms’ profitability.
Research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism during the 2019 UK general election – tracking 1,711 people aged 18-65 across mobile and desktop devices for six weeks – found news took up just 3% of their time online (about 16 minutes and 22 visits to news sites a week).
So if stories from Australian news outlets disappeared from Facebook or Google search results, it would barely make a scratch on their appeal to advertisers.
Save journalism, not commercial publishers
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s Digital Platforms Inquiry has rightly noted the revenue crisis has crippled commercial provision of public-interest journalism “that performs a critical role in the effective functioning of democracy at all levels of government”.
But the core of the problem is that funding such journalism through advertising is no longer viable. Other solutions are needed – locally and nationally – to ensure its survival.
Commercial news organisations no longer offer value to advertisers. Instead of searching for ways to make an obsolete business solvent, efforts should focus on alternative ways to fund public-interest journalism.
More funding for independent public broadcasters is one solution, and incentives for philanthropic funding and non-profit journalism organisations are proving successful in other countries.
It’s a global problem. To solve the crisis in Australia will require focusing on the core problem and thinking bigger than a bargaining code.
For transparency, please note The Conversation has also made a submission to the Senate inquiry regarding the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.
Google Australia’s managing director Mel Silva said if the government’s proposal goes ahead, “we would have no real choice but to stop making Google Search available in Australia”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison pushed back saying he won’t respond to “threats”. Even the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia says Google needs “strong and stringent” regulation because of its monopoly on searching the web.
What if Google pulls out?
Google’s proposal to make Google Search unavailable in Australia means we would need to search the web using other systems and tools. If this really happens, we could no longer go to google.com and google.com.au to search the web.
It is important to note that Google is not just web search. Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc also runs key web portals such as YouTube, and productivity tools such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs and Google Maps (which actually started in Australia). Those services are not going to be removed from the Australian market, even if web search does get pulled out.
Online advertising is another sector in which Google is the market leader and where it makes money. Pulling Google web search out from Australia does not mean businesses would no longer be able to advertise using Google’s services.
But with no Google Search here, those adverts would no longer appear ahead of any other search results and be visited by Australian users.
Businesses would still be able to put their adverts on other Australian websites that use the Google Ads service.
The issue with this scenario is that Google’s key competitive advantage is the ability to access data from people using its search services. Pulling web search out from the Australian market would mean Google missing out on that data from people in Australia.
The alternatives to Google
Google is the dominant search engine in Australia — it has 94% of the web search market in Australia — but there are other search services.
Another less popular search option is Yahoo, which also offers its own news and email service.
Other alternatives include niche search engines that offer unique tools with special features.
For example, DuckDuckGo is a search engine that has recently risen in popularity thanks to a commitment to protecting its users’ privacy.
Contrary to the web search products from Google and Microsoft, DuckDuckGo does not store its users’ search queries or track their interactions with the system.
The quality of DuckDuckGo’s search results has improved over time, and is now comparable to that of the most popular search engines.
It says it now processes a daily average of more than 90 million search queries, up from just over 51 million the same time last year.
Despite not drawing on users’ data to refine its search algorithms, the technology behind DuckDuckGo and other smaller players is based on the same machine-learning methods that others are using.
Search the web, save the planet
Another interesting and recent proposal of an alternative web search engine is Ecosia. This system is unique as it focuses on sustainability and positive climate impact.
Its mission is to reinvest the income generated by search advertisements (the same business model Google Search is using) to plant trees in key areas around the world.
So far, it says it has 15 million users and has contributed to planting more than 100 million trees, about 1.3 every second.
Will Google really abandon Australia?
Tim Berners-Lee, widely regarded as the inventor of the web, has pointed out that the idea of asking web platforms to pay to post links runs counter to his fundamental concept.
That said, it is also unfair for a search engine to make money using content that others have created.
It is also true that most of Google’s revenue already comes from asking others to pay for links on the web. This is how Google’s online advertising works: Google Ads makes advertisers pay for every impression users get or click users make to navigate to the advertised web page.
If users end up buying the advertised product, Google gets an even higher payment.
More likely than Google pulling out of the Australian market, the government and the search giant should diplomatically find a compromise in which Google still provides its web search product in Australia and there will be a return to news organisations for Google making use of their content.
Terrorism, political extremism, Donald Trump, social media and the phenomenon of “cancel culture” are confronting journalists with a range of agonising free-speech dilemmas to which there are no easy answers.
Do they allow a president of the United States to use their platforms to falsely and provocatively claim the election he has just lost was stolen from him?
How do they cover the activities and rhetoric of political extremists without giving oxygen to race hate and civil insurrection?
How do they integrate news-making social media material into their own content, when it is also hateful or a threat to the civil peace?
Should journalists engage in, or take a stand against, “cancel culture”?
How should editors respond to the “assassin’s veto”, when extremists threaten to kill those who publish content that offends their culture or religion?
The West has experienced concrete examples of all these in recent years. In the US, many of them became pressing during the Trump presidency.
When five of the big US television networks cut away from Trump’s White House press conference on November 6 after he claimed the election had been stolen, they did so on the grounds that he was lying and endangering civil peace.
Silencing the president was an extraordinary step, since it is the job of the media to tell people what is going on, hold public officials to account, and uphold the right to free speech. It looked like an abandonment of their role in democratic life.
Against that, television’s acknowledged reach and power imposes a heavy duty not to provide a platform for dangerous speech.
Then on January 6 – two months later to the day – after yet more incitement from Trump, a violent mob laid siege to the Capitol and five people lost their lives. The networks’ decision looked prescient.
They had acted on the principle that a clear and present danger to civil peace, based on credible evidence, should be prioritised over commitments to informing the public, holding public officials to account and freedom of speech.
This case also raised a further dilemma. Even if the danger to peace did not exist, should journalists just go on reporting – or broadcasting – known lies, even when they come from the president of the United States?
Newspaper editors and producers of pre-recorded radio and television content have the time to report lies while simultaneously calling them out as lies. Live radio and television do not. The words are out and the damage is done.
So the medium, the nature and size of the risk, how the informational and accountability functions of journalism are prioritised against the risk, and the free-speech imperative all play into these decisions.
Similar considerations arise in respect of reporting political extremism.
The ABC’s Four Corners program is about to embark on a story about the alt-right in the US. Having advertised this in a promotional tweet, the ABC received some social media blow-back raising the question of why it would give oxygen to these groups.
The influence of the alt-right on Western politics is a matter of real public interest because of the way it shapes political rhetoric and policy responses, particular on race and immigration.
To not report on this phenomenon because it pursues a morally reprehensible ideology would be to fail the ethical obligation of journalism to tell the community about the important things that are going on in the world.
It is not a question of whether to report, but how.
The Four Corners program will not be live to air. There will be opportunity for judicious editing. Journalists are under no obligation to report everything they are told. In fact they almost never do.
Whether the decision to omit is censorship comes down to motive: is it censorship to omit hate speech or incitement to violence? No. Because the reporter doesn’t agree with it? Yes.
Integrating social media content into professional mass media news presents all these complexities and one more: what is called the news value of “virality”.
Does the fact something has gone viral on social media make it news? For the more responsible professional mass media, something more will usually be needed. Does the subject matter affect large numbers of people? Is it inherently significant in some way? Does it involve some person who is in a position of authority or public trust?
Trump’s use of Twitter was an exploitation of these decision-rules, but did not invalidate them.
Social media is also the means by which “cancel culture” works. It enables large numbers of people to join a chorus of condemnation against someone for something they have said or done. It also puts pressure on institutions such as universities or media outlets to shun them.
It has become a means by which the otherwise powerless or voiceless can exert influence over people or organisations that would otherwise be beyond their reach.
There are those who are worried about the effects on free speech. In July 2020, Harper’s magazine published a letter of protest signed by 152 authors, academics, journalists, artists, poets, playwrights and critics.
While applauding the intentions behind “cancel culture” in advancing racial and social justice, they raised their voices against what they saw as a new set of moral attitudes that tended to favour ideological conformity.
In the aftermath of the police killings of black people in 2020 and the law-and-order response of the Trump administration, “cancel culture” began to affect journalism ethics. Some journalists on papers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times began taking public positions against the way their papers were reporting race issues.
It led to a lively debate in the profession about the extent to which moral preferences should shape news decisions. The riposte to those who argued that they should, was: whose moral preferences should prevail?
This was yet another illustration of the complexities surrounding free speech issues arising from the social media phenomenon, the Trump presidency and the combination of the two.
Terrorism has also added its contribution. Over the decade 2005-2015, what became known as the Danish cartoons confronted journalists and editors with life-and-death decisions.
In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten (Jutland Post) published cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. It was a conscious act of defiance against “the assassin’s veto”, violent threats to free speech by Islamist-jihadis.
In 2009, a Danish-born professor of politics wrote a book, The Cartoons that Shook the World. Yale University Press, which published it, refused to re-publish the cartoons after having taken advice from counter-terrorism experts about the risks.
In November 2011, the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo published an issue called Charia Hebdo, satirically featuring the Prophet as editor. The real editor was placed on an Al-Qaeda hit list and in January 2015, two masked gunmen opened fire on the newspaper office, killing 12 people, including the editor.
The world’s media were confronted with the decision whether to re-publish the cartoons again in defiance of “the assassin’s veto”. Some did, but most – including Jyllands Posten – did not.
The necessary limits of free speech
Free speech is an indispensable civil right under assault from all these forces. But none of the philosophers whose names we immediately associate with free speech have claimed it to be absolute.
The social media platforms, having for years proclaimed themselves extreme libertarians, have in recent times begun to recognise this is indefensible, and strengthened their moderating procedures.
Some of Australia’s senior politicians seem baffled by the issue.
When Twitter shut down Trump’s account, acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack didn’t seem to know where he stood, saying in one breath it was a violation of free speech to shut down Trump while in the next that Twitter should also take down the false image of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child.
And he is a former country newspaper editor.
This was followed by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s remark that he was “uncomfortable” with the Twitter decision. He quoted Voltaire as saying something Voltaire never said: the famous line that while he disagreed with what someone said, he would defend to the death his right to say it. It was a fabrication put into Voltaire’s mouth by a biographer more than 100 years after his death.
Voltaire, Milton, Spinoza, Locke and Mill, to say nothing of the US Supreme Court, have not regarded free speech as an absolute right.
So while the media face some extremely difficult decisions in today’s operating environment, they do not need to burden themselves with the belief that every decision not to publish is the violation of an inviolable right.
The blame for the recent assault on the US Capitol and President Donald Trump’s broader dismantling of democratic institutions and norms can be laid at least partly on misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Those who spread misinformation, like Trump himself, are exploiting people’s lack of media literacy — it’s easy to spread lies to people who are prone to believe what they read online without questioning it.
We are living in a dangerous age where the internet makes it possible to spread misinformation far and wide and most people lack the basic fact-checking abilities to discern fact from fiction — or, worse, the desire to develop a healthy skepticism at all.
Journalists are trained in this sort of thing — that is, the responsible ones who are trying to counter misinformation with truth.
Here are five fundamental lessons from Journalism 101 that all citizens can learn to improve their media literacy and fact-checking skills:
1. Distinguishing verified facts from myths, rumours and opinions
Cold, hard facts are the building blocks for considered and reasonable opinions in politics, media and law.
And there are no such things as “alternative facts” — facts are facts. Just because a falsity has been repeated many times by important people and their affiliates does not make it true.
We cannot expect the average citizen to have the skills of an academic researcher, journalist or judge in determining the veracity of an asserted statement. However, we can teach people some basic strategies before they mistake mere assertions for actual facts.
Does a basic internet search show these assertions have been confirmed by usually reliable sources – such as non-partisan mainstream news organisations, government websites and expert academics?
Students are taught to look to the URL of more authoritative sites — such as .gov or .edu — as a good hint at the factual basis of an assertion.
Searches and hashtags in social media are much less reliable as verification tools because you could be fishing within the “bubble” (or “echo chamber”) of those who share common interests, fears and prejudices – and are more likely to be perpetuating myths and rumours.
2. Mixing up your media and social media diet
We need to be break out of our own “echo chambers” and our tendencies to access only the news and views of those who agree with us, on the topics that interest us and where we feel most comfortable.
For example, over much of the past five years, I have deliberately switched between various conservative and liberal media outlets when something important has happened in the US.
By looking at the coverage of the left- and right-wing media, I can hope to find a common set of facts both sides agree on — beyond the partisan rhetoric and spin. And if only one side is reporting something, I know to question this assertion and not just take it at face value.
3. Being skeptical and assessing the factual premise of an opinion
Journalism students learn to approach the claims of their sources with a “healthy skepticism”. For instance, if you are interviewing someone and they make what seems to be a bold or questionable claim, it’s good practice to pause and ask what facts the claim is based on.
Students are taught in media law this is the key to the fair comment defence to a defamation action. This permits us to publish defamatory opinions on matters of public interest as long as they are reasonably based on provable facts put forth by the publication.
The ABC’s Media Watch used this defence successfully (at trial and on appeal) when it criticised a Sydney Sun-Herald journalist’s reporting that claimed toxic materials had been found near a children’s playground.
This assessment of the factual basis of an opinion is not reserved for defamation lawyers – it is an exercise we can all undertake as we decide whether someone’s opinion deserves our serious attention and republication.
4. Exploring the background and motives of media and sources
A key skill in media literacy is the ability to look behind the veil of those who want our attention — media outlets, social media influencers and bloggers — to investigate their allegiances, sponsorships and business models.
For instance, these are some key questions to ask:
who is behind that think tank whose views you are retweeting?
who owns the online newspaper you read and what other commercial interests do they hold?
is your media diet dominated by news produced from the same corporate entity?
why does someone need to be so loud or insulting in their commentary; is this indicative of their neglect of important facts that might counter their view?
what might an individual or company have to gain or lose by taking a position on an issue, and how might that influence their opinion?
Just because someone has an agenda does not mean their facts are wrong — but it is a good reason to be even more skeptical in your verification processes.
5. Reflecting and verifying before sharing
We live in an era of instant republication. We immediately retweet and share content we see on social media, often without even having read it thoroughly, let alone having fact-checked it.
Mindful reflection before pressing that sharing button would allow you to ask yourself, “Why am I even choosing to share this material?”
You could also help shore up democracy by engaging in the fact-checking processes mentioned above to avoid being part of the problem by spreading misinformation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Google and Facebook have threatened to limit or remove news services for Australian users, in response to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s draft news media bargaining code.
This week, Facebook announced should the code become law, the company would stop letting publishers and users share local and international news on its Australian Facebook and Instagram sites.
Arguments in favour of the code centre on two points. First, that Australian media outlets are in critical danger of going bust because of Google and Facebook’s dominance of the digital advertising market.
Second, that Google and Facebook are Godzilla-like entities dominating the market and resisting any regulation attempt – especially one that could set an international precedent.
It’s true regulation has a role in addressing the anti-competitive aspects of the digital advertising industry, but I have doubts about the ACCC’s code. It would allow commercial news businesses to bargain with Google and Facebook, in order to be paid for Australian news content included on their platforms.
But I don’t think it will work (which I say reluctantly as both Google and Facebook have much to answer for). I also don’t think the code is fair – and there’s a better way to solve the problem.
Misunderstanding how news works on social media
For years, Facebook has tinkered with its algorithm to prioritise posts from users’ personal connections, in what chief Mark Zuckerberg characterised as a preference for the digital lounge over the digital town square.
Basically, your Facebook News Feed (the main feed in which you discover new content) isn’t really a “news” feed. Rather, it features personalised content from those you most often, or have most recently, connected with.
If a news story appears on your feed, it has likely been shared by one of your connections. Or, you may be following that company’s Facebook page, or the company may have paid to advertise (boost) the content.
Which news stories you come across on Facebook depends on a variety of factors and algorithmic decisions. This process is complicated and vastly different to how news is presented on a publication’s website, or in a newspaper.
The ACCC’s attempt to have media businesses “fairly” paid for the value of Australian news on social media is problematic because accurately attributing value to this content is anything but straightforward.
It’s worth noting a major point of resistance against the ACCC code is the requirement for Google and Facebook to give 28 days’ notice of algorithmic changes that will affect either referral traffic to news, or the ranking of news behind paywalls.
The opaque business of digital advertising
Commercial news today is funded largely through advertising based on audience numbers and demographics, rather than content alone (excluding subscription models).
Traditionally, however, audiences have been targeted based on news content. For example, ads for wedding dresses would be placed in bridal magazines. In such scenarios, the content itself is valuable to advertisers because it attracts their specific audience.
In digital advertising, however, the news content is often secondary or even inconsequential for generating ad revenue. The ads target their audience directly based on a user profile of recorded behaviours, characteristics and preferences. The page the ad appears on may be a factor, but one of many.
This is called programmatic advertising. When you visit a site, an automated “bidding war” is instantly conducted where your user profile is matched against potential advertisers. The winner takes the ad spot – and this is decided by several factors including offer price, as well as the likelihood of the ad being clicked.
All of this happens in the time it takes for a website to load (about 200 milliseconds).
The ACCCC code proposes remuneration for publishers based on a negotiated value of news content, but the value of news for online advertisers isn’t derived from the content as much as the targeted audience.
Hence, the tussle between the ACCC, Google and Facebook is both confusing and confused.
Assessing the value of news
The ACCC code also conflates the ways digital news content and social media users are socially and commercially valued. In explaining the need for the code, the ACCC states:
While bargaining power imbalances exist in other areas, the bargaining power imbalance between news media businesses and major digital platforms is being addressed as a strong and independent media landscape is essential to a well-functioning democracy.
This “public sphere” ideal is the premise for treating news content as being important enough to force digital giants to subsidise it. Fair enough, but the ACCC’s “professional standards test” which news businesses must pass to qualify for remuneration sets a low bar.
It doesn’t consider important aspects of public interest journalism, such as concentration of ownership, or newsroom diversity – a vexed issue in Australia’s news landscape.
Also, the code states the ABC and SBS are not able to claim remuneration (but can still benefit from information about algorithms and data). This is based on the idea that commercial news media are more vulnerable than public broadcasters, due to advertising revenue lost to Google and Facebook.
With this, the argument has changed: the value of news is not only democratic, it’s also commercial.
There is another way
It seems Google and Facebook would rather take extreme measures than be forced to pay for news, or provide news businesses information about algorithm changes and user data. Both companies have claimed they provide greater value to Australian news businesses than they receive.
Perhaps the way forward is to regulate programmatic advertising. Specifically, we should scrutinise the complex network of companies that discretely trade data profiles and advertising space. And this industry is dominated by, guess who, Google and Facebook.
Reform in this space may help address the advertising revenue and market power problems the code seeks to resolve.
The ACCC’s next cab off the rank is a review and report on the ad tech industry that considers these issues.
Hopefully it will suggest approaches to regulating the digital advertising market. This seems a better option than the compensation currently being sought.