Australian News Media Bargaining Code Can Be Improved Upon To Deliver Better Outcomes

Australia’s news media bargaining code is a “big step forward” in acknowledging the principle of payment for content but the code can be improved to deliver better outcomes as other regulators seek to implement their own regimes, peers have heard.

In a wide-ranging session for its inquiry into Freedom of expression online, members of the Communications and Digital Committee heard publishers’ views about the Online Harms regime and the Digital Markets Unit.

Appearing as witnesses, DMG Media editor emeritus Peter Wright and Guardian Media Group director of public policy Matt Rogerson both welcomed the Competition and Markets Authority’s work to date on the digital advertising market and the Government’s acceptance of its recommendations to level the playing field between the tech platforms and news publishers.  

Speaking about Australia’s news media bargaining code, Mr Rogerson said it was “a big step forward” that regulators across the globe could look to and improve upon. “There will be a constant iteration on what the Australians have done to find a better outcome,” he said.

Stressing the need for a code in the UK, Mr Wright said: “Google and Facebook have unlimited money – where they see a possible regulatory threat they’ll throw it around. If that means the regulatory threat goes away again then they’ll take the money back and use it on something else.”  

Also giving evidence, DMG Media legal adviser Lizzie Greene said that, following the implementation of the publisher’s right in some countries in Europe, the bargaining power of the platforms had led to publishers initially agreeing deals to let the platforms have their content for free.

“It was only when the competition authority got involved that more meaningful deals began to be struck. It’s another illustration of the need for some teeth behind any sort of bargaining code,” she added.

Director of editorial legal services at Guardian News and Media Gill Phillips added: “Over the years, it’s been almost impossible for individual publishers to negotiate anything meaningful with any of the platforms because we have no clout.”

Speaking about the incoming online harms regime, publishers spoke of their concerns around the tech giants being left to police journalistic content which appeared on their own platforms.

Calling for a complete exemption for journalism, with penalties if the exemption is breached, Mr Wright said: “We already know that our own news websites are out of scope because we’re not platforms so what possible justification can there be for platforms blocking a piece of content which is freely available to read on our own website. It just doesn’t stand up to logic I’m afraid.”

He added: “On the definition of trusted journalism, there is debate going on about this and I think you have to look to a series of indicators and one of them is, are they either individually working or working for a publication which takes legal responsibility for what it publishes?

“Does it have a code of practice which it requires its journalists to follow? Does it have a named editor? Do you know where its ownership lies? There are a whole series of tests which can be applied.

“I agree it needs very careful thinking through and you’ve got to be awfully careful that it doesn’t become a licensing system but there are means to do that and at the moment there is a longstanding system for issuing press cards to identify individual journalists which works on just that basis.”         

Mr Rogerson said: “I think the opportunity with Online Harms and the Digital Markets Unit legislation is to shine a light on how and why content is served, and to understand how and why commercial outcomes have occurred.

“Once we have that information, we are better able as both businesses and consumers to establish whether platform behaviour is fair, just or equal.”