Gordon Campbell on saving journalists, not an industry that routinely exploits them

Goldsmith imageLabour is saying it needs to listen. Apparently, Labour is going to spend 2024 listening, and 2025 thinking about its options. It could be 2026 before Labour finally reveals what it has in mind. Really? Currently, National and ACT are burning down the house, people are screaming for relief from this government and… Chris Hipkins is standing on the footpath smiling, with his hand cupped to his ear? Listening. Listening while peoples’ jobs and livelihoods go up in flames.

Ever since he took over the Labour leadership from Jacinda Ardern, Chris Hipkins has done nothing but listen to the focus groups, and then tried to tell voters what he thinks they want to hear. That’s not a virtue. Ever eager to please, he spent last year scrapping and trimming and dialling back all of the polarising aspects of Labour policy that he could get his hands on.

The result was that, under Hipkins, Labour seemed to be bending ineffectually with the political winds, which-ever way they were blowing. He is still doing it. In their current time of need, the public has every good reason to feel that Labour is deliberately abandoning them, for fear of the scrutiny that promoting solid alternatives might attract. If Hipkins won’t – or can’t – express with chapter and verse what Labour would be doing differently, he needs to step aside and let someone else do it. Because listening is not leading.

Paying for news

Previously on Media In Distress… advertising revenue has sunk below the waves, and the weary inhabitants of the media lifeboat have been scanning the horizon for a government rescue mission, even while Big Tech steams right on past them. In this latest episode of this long-running drama, the only rescue ship in sight – the Australian News Media Bargaining Code – may be going the way of the Titanic!

To recap: there’s always a temptation to look backwards, to the $200 million plus in revenue gains the Australian News Media Bargaining Code has generated, and then wistfully extrapolate that sum to the $30-50 million that might be won from a similar exercise in New Zealand. Problem being, Meta signalled in March that it wasn’t interested in re-negotiating the deals it struck with various Aussie media outlets, once those deals expire later this year.

Not only is Meta letting its old deals lapse, it seems to be in no mood to negotiate new ones:

….The digital giant said it would stop paying [Australian] news publishers about $70 million a year for content when existing deals expire this year. After months of speculation…Meta’s local boss Will Easton and Asia-Pacific public policy lead Simon Milner told publishers and the government it would not negotiate new deals.

The battle-lines were drawn in a recent appearance by Meta before a parliamentary inquiry in Canberra:

Meta was grilled on its commitment to Australian journalism…The deals came about as a result of the former government’s introduction of the news media bargaining code, which was designed to force tech companies to pay for the benefit they derive from having Australian news content on their platforms…

Meta’s regional director of policy, Mia Garlick, [has]said “all options were on the table” when asked whether it would block all Australian news content. The suggestion was that the company could avoid the need to pay for such content by preventing it from being posted on its platforms…. Meta has already blocked news content in Canada, after similar laws were enforced by the Trudeau government.

Right. With that looming crisis in mind, why is Communications and Media Minister Paul Goldsmith looking so hopefully across the Tasman for a funding model to save our embattled media industry? “It would be useful,” Goldsmith told Morning Report, “to have consistency with Australia…I wanted to align our approach more closely with the Australian approach.”

Fine: except that the Australian approach seems headed for a legal battle royale between the tech giants and the Albanese government. As yet, the validity of Australia’s bargaining code has never been tested in a courtroom. When faced in 2021 with the price for news content being set by an independent regulator appointed by the Morrison government, the tech giants pivoted and chose the option of striking separate deals with the main media organisations – which is why Rupert Murdoch ended up dipping heavily into the $200 million to $250 million media honeypot. Some observers called the Code a “shakedown” enacted for Murdoch’s prime benefit.

True, these agreements have provided millions of dollars in additional revenue to Aussie media companies, thereby supporting jobs in journalism. This bought time, but time is now running out. Nine Entertainment, Australia’s biggest network conglomerate, has just slashed 200 jobs. Last month, the Murdoch Group announced a $A65 million cost savings programme.

Striking a pose

In the circumstances then…shaping our response to the media crisis so that it can better cohere with the Australian approach looks to be either delusional and/or reliant on the Aussies doing all the heavy legal lifting, while we wait downstream in the hope of reaping some benefits from the precedent they might set.

To that end, Goldsmith has indicated that New Zealand is planning to enact a revised version of Labour’s Fair Digital News Bargaining Bill, which was a carbon copy of the Australian legislation. In the New Zealand coalition government’s revised version, the crucial first step – the designation of whether a particular digital media company falls within the ambit of the legislation – will now be a decision made by the Minister, and not by an independent arbitrator, as originally envisaged.

Designation is not a simple procedure. If Google and Meta, why not Amazon and Microsoft? Why not Alphabet? How many of these Goliaths would the Kiwi David be prepared to sue with its little legal slingshot, and at what price?

Reality being as it is unless the Australians have already prevailed, we will achieve precious little on our own. I know, New Zealand always punches above its weight, but it’s hard to imagine that this country would be able to convince the likes of Google and Meta to voluntarily pay us tens of millions of dollars a year, for news content that Meta says is only a small and declining part of its digital operations.

Virtue signalling

There are plenty of gestural politics involved in all of this. Anthony Albanese wants to be seen as the feisty defender of Australia’s struggling media industry – shed a tear for Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stokes – against the big bad Zuckerbergs of the world.

In the same way here, wittering on about the needs of the Gisborne Herald and the Ashburton Chronicle enables Willie Jackson to be seen as fighting the good fight against the digital barons, on behalf of the little guy. Across the aisle, Paul Goldsmith’s citing of the Australian model enables him to sound like a serious fellow doing something to shore up the sinking Fourth Estate.

Yet look at the timeframe. First, any Australian legal challenge will go well into 2025, there will be the time involved in the passage through our Parliament of comparable legislation, then the process of taking any defaulting digital barons to court… At best, we would be lucky to see any proceeds for journalism in the bank much before the end of the decade.

Meanwhile, the media lifeboat continues to take on more water. In some respects, ACT’s decision to sit by and watch the media drown looks more honest.

Footnote One: Genuine help has to be speedy, practical, and substantial, in that the funds to keep journalism afloat have to be comparable in scale to the problems confronting the industry. That 3% levy on digital advertising envisaged by the Digital Services Tax Bill has been estimated to raise about $54 million annually, a similar sum to what the Journalism Fund formerly offered. But at a crunch, would the coalition government really be willing to impose an ideologically abhorrent new tax that’s being targeted to help out one sole industry, with that industry being… the media? ACT has already baulked at that prospect.

Footnote Two: It is easy (and pretty stupid) to hold Meta and Google singularly responsible for all the media industry’s manifest problems, and then try to prop up business-as-usual by taxing some of the tech giants’ profits, in the hope that the benefits will trickle down past the shareholders, to the journalists who are actually doing the virtuous stuff of holding power to account. If only.

In fact, much of what is wrong with the media industry has been self-inflicted, and bailing it out would be to the prime benefit of its owners and shareholders, not the journalists on the front lines. Much of the media industry deserves to die, in the hope and belief that better models for doing journalism will rise from the rubble.

This model – the Civic Information Consortium in New Jersey – has much to commend it. Like the former Journalism Fund here, the Consortium operates as a contestable fund for journalism projects, rather than as a mechanism for extorting money from the social media multinationals, and then handing that out indiscriminately to media owners, to boost the corporate bottom line.

Footnote Three: If overseas precedents (eg California) are anything to go by, any tax remedy we did eventually adopt here would not be all that pretty. As Mike Masnick of Techdirt has written, the initiatives currently being taken in the California state legislature are seeking to tax Meta/Google etc either for their “accessing” of news content for their users ( i.e. a tax on reading) or for their “gathering” of that content, with that being a tax on information. Neither approach seems all that desirable. Neither approach includes any incentive for media industry owners to change their business models.

Listening to The Bear

While the third season of The Bear has spun its wheels and recycled its stylistic tics without much in the way of a compelling main narrative…the needle drops have still been pretty good. Good to hear this irresistible, nonsensical track by the Cocteau Twins again:

In an extended sequence, the show used this recent track by Adrianne Lenker for a God’s eye view of the increasingly fraught working relationship between Syd and Carmen :