Google and Meta have reportedly paid more than A$200 million to Australian news outlets since the Morrison government introduced the groundbreaking News Media Bargaining Code a year ago. Yet Canada boasts that its own version of the code will do better.
Canadian Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez claims the online news bill he intends to introduce in the Ottawa parliament within months will also force Google and Meta to pay media outlets for third-party news content on their sites. But he argues it will be a “more transparent” version of the Australian code.
His key criticism of the Australian version was that it handed power to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg through “designation”, rather than to an independent regulator. This, he says, will force big technology companies to negotiate deals with media outlets:
In our case, it’s not going to be the minister that will designate. […] there are going to be criteria set by the regulator that will clearly identify who are in an imbalanced situation and require them to sit down with news organisations and get into a deal.
Australia’s code – which uses competition rather than the European model of copyright law to compel Google and Meta to pay for news – has attracted international attention. In the past fortnight, Canadian and US journalists have visited our shores to report on it.
Since the code was introduced, Frydenberg has resisted using this designation power, so only voluntary deals have been done between the technology giants and news companies. This has created clear winners and losers.
The winners generally have been legacy and larger media outlets such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, Nine Entertainment, the ABC, The Guardian and networks of regional newspapers such as Australian Community Media. The ACCC estimates Google has secured 20 media deals (including with The Conversation), while Meta has made 14 deals.
Media outlets left without Meta deals include public interest journalism publications such as The Conversation and SBS. There has also been little provided for smaller media start-ups in need of funds to help diversify Australia’s highly concentrated news landscape under the code.
Excluding these outlets runs counter to the Australian government’s aim to address “bargaining power imbalances between the digital platforms and Australian news media”.
This failure to get some deals done led the outgoing chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims – a chief architect of the code – to complain it was “inexplicable” these outlets were excluded.
Other criticisms of the code have been that commercial in-confidence arrangements mean no one knows exactly how much money has flowed to media companies ($200 million is the ACCC’s estimate) and that there is actually no legal requirement for this money to be spent on journalism.
The Canadian minister acknowledges that media companies have legitimate commercial sensitivities, but criticises the lack of transparency in the Australian code. On this issue he has been explicit:
One of the things we want to do differently from Australia is to be more transparent.
The fact these criticisms come from the Canadian government is notable. The Trudeau administration has been a vocal supporter of the Australian reform process, along with many other countries.
Rodriguez’s comments suggest that, while other countries are keen to adopt the reform, most will work to improve on the deal that emerged from the series of high-stakes negotiations in early 2021, which prompted Facebook to briefly pull news off its platform.
Australia might even consider thinking about adopting some of these international modifications. Frydenberg marked the one-year anniversary of the Australian code last week by announcing a review of its performance, to report by September 2022.
The review is a chance for industry stakeholders, policymakers and researchers to assess the impact of the code in its first year of operation. Of course, many participants who secured deals will be pleased. However, the review must consider outstanding issues such as greater transparency, rigorous criteria around designation, and expenditure.
As the code continues to operate, we must also consider the long-term impacts of platform payments. A yearly injection of $200 million into the Australian media market is not transformative, but it is enough to make an impact. Finding out how that money has been spent is now a critical task and more answers are needed.
To what extent can we credit the code for the recent upsurge in recruitment in some of our larger media companies’ newsrooms?
What are the experiences of the smaller media outlets that have struggled to even get a reply from Google and Meta?
Is the code doing enough to assist regional and remote towns that no longer have access to local news?
And what impact, if any, do other funding schemes such as the Facebook Australian News Fund that Meta has established with the Walkley Foundation have on public interest journalism?
Local and regional journalism that covers council meetings, courts and times of crises such as flood and bushfire emergencies are fundamental to Australian democracy and our well-being. This is where the disruption in the news media has had a significant impact in the past two decades. Research shows parts of Australia have become “news deserts”, with no local media coverage.
While the review of the code is welcome, ongoing research is vital to help reveal whether it has contributed positively to the renewal of Australian journalism, or simply stabilised established players.