A United UK News Industry Calls On Government To Create Level Playing Field With Tech Platforms

A broad range of organisations interested in sustaining quality journalism have welcomed the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill and its potential to level the relationship between news outlets and tech platforms, while calling for several key measures to ensure that the Bill is as effective as possible.

A discussion covering the benefits the Bill will have for news organisations took place yesterday with contributions from ITN chief executive Rachel Corp, News Media Association chief executive Owen Meredith and Public Interest News Foundation executive director Jonathan Heawood. 

Andy Carter MP, chair of the Media APPG, sponsored the event looking at the specific benefits that the bill can bring to producers of trusted journalism. Others on the panel included Chris Jenkins, Competition and Markets Authority director, the former No 10 economist Matthew Sinclair, and Tom Smith from Geradin Partners. Alex Davies-Jones MP, Labour Shadow Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy, was also in attendance to voice her support for the landmark legislation.

Ofcom and the CMA have already jointly concluded that CMA Conduct Requirements could include measures to support negotiations for a fair value exchange between news providers and platforms. Platforms argue that news content brings them little value, so are lobbying against the Bill.

However, the panellists stressed that the new law makes commercial sense for all parties, ensuring only that platforms negotiate fair terms. If they believe they bring more value to publishers than vice versa, they could simply back the legislation and negotiate.

Rachel Corp said: “ITN strongly supports the introduction of this Bill. High quality journalism providers need a fair, and competitive commercial environment, with algorithmic transparency and meaningful negotiations with the global tech platforms. Our audiences expect trusted and impartial information to be available on these platforms and to sustain this we need the ability to secure fair and reasonable payments recognising the value of the journalism we invest in so heavily.”

Agreeing that the NMA strongly supported the Bill, Owen Meredith added: “The value of news content to the platforms is far greater than economic value, as it also drives user engagement, frequency of visits, and quality controls through search.

“Although platforms are able to monetise plenty of other content that doesn’t contain news content – news content is monetised by the platforms in a different way. There is no recognition or reward flowing back to the original creators and that is why we need the legislation. The CMA needs these powers to be able to act fast.”

Jonathan Heawood added his support and outlined the importance of specialist publications to platforms as they give them the ability to “serve up hyper relevant content to users around the world and that’s what platforms thrive on”. He also welcomed the Bill’s potential for publishers to collectively bargain with platforms.

Last week, Google announced it will remove news links from its search results in Canada when a law that will require it to negotiate deals with news publishers takes effect. Alex Davies-Jones criticised the move, saying it would deny “citizens’ access to reliable information to avoid payment so as only to emphasise the primacy that these firms place on profit, rather than citizens’ interests.”

She said that “the government cannot give in to similar threats here in the UK and not be swayed by big tech.” She added: “Platforms need to compensate publishers fairly, rather than harm the UK’s access to trusted news.”

The Bill will “rebalance the digital advertising sphere, give publishers better access to consumer data and provide better understanding of algorithms. These are all incredibly welcome changes, which Labour supports,” she added.

The Bill’s focus is on creating a flexible framework that allows the CMA to apply tailored Conduct Requirements and Pro-Competitive Interventions, rather than being overly prescriptive about which markets and activities will be regulated. This approach differs from the narrow focus of the News Media Bargaining Code in Australia and Canada’s Online News Act, and the more rigid EU Digital Markets Act. 

All three journalistic organisations called for the CMA to prioritise addressing the imbalance of power between platforms and publishers once the Bill receives Royal Assent. The bill is currently going through Parliament and with a Commons Public Bill Committee scrutinising it. 

Chris Jenkins said that the Bill is about ensuring competition and innovation in digital markets and aimed at designating only a handful of firms He outlined several areas where the bill could be applied to the news industry such as payment, data and algorithmic transparency. “Specifically in relation to content hosting where publishers’ content is viewed through platforms and a platform has strategic market status we could look at whether the terms of that trade are fair and reasonable”, he said.

Considering improvements to the Bill, Owen Meredith added: “Another area in the Bill that could be improved is FOM, which is the ultimate backstop in this legislation. However, it could be brought forward, particularly in circumstances where both parties believe FOM to be the best way to resolve a dispute or if there is clearly an agitator, or aggressive party, who is trying to evade conduct requirements by not negotiating at all, I think the regulator should be able to offer FOM earlier on.”

Tom Smith supported the Judicial Review standard and also outlined the modest nature of the system that has been designed pointing to the CMA’s being unable to act “unless it can prove each case one by one, and each intervention one by one. That’s why I think it’s going to be a good thing is going to level the playing field in digital ecosystems and is going to enable the big firms to carry on innovating in this market.”

Meanwhile Matthew Sinclair questioned whether the CMA will be given too much power adding that the CMA’s relationship with tech platforms could become stretched and result in a “fraught process” when conduct requirements are being created. 

Notes to Editors:

Judicial Review. Platforms are lobbying for a Full Merits System of appeal. Publishers back the accepted industry standard of appeal, known as Judicial Review. They argue:

  • JR ensures all stakeholders have substantial chance to input into the process and review the CMA’s decisions before they are implemented;
  • It also has several checks and balances, including oversight from government which can set CMA strategic direction;
  • Full merits appeal would fundamentally change the way the tech companies engage with the CMA, making it more adversarial at every stage and undermining the participatory nature of the process;
  • Anything more than JR would make the process unworkably long, meaning delay in getting remedies in place which (given the speed at which digital markets move) would risk remedies being obsolete and harms becoming irreversible;
  • The suggestion of a time limit on a full merits appeal is deemed unworkable;
  • JR is the appropriate standard:  it is the standard for public decision; it is used on analogous CMA cases and is most appropriate for forward looking statements/remedies.

 Final Offer Mechanism. Publishers urge that this arbitration system – placed in the legislation to incentivise platforms to negotiate with third parties such as publishers – should be made available earlier in the enforcement process. They argue that:

  • This will prevent platforms from using vast legal and financial resources to frustrate and evade regulation;
  • And will make sure there is no long delays in allowing publishers to negotiate fair and reasonable payments for the value that trusted journalism brings to online platforms.

A recent paper published by the Institute of Economic Affairs, argued that “Google and Meta did not take publishers’ money any more than Henry Ford stole from the horse and carriage industry” – so called “creative destruction”.  However, publishers argue that whilst platforms have created an efficient advertising and distribution model, they have not created any public interest journalism; instead, they threaten its production because they benefit greatly from publishers’ output without having paid for it. The broad range of ‘hard news’, political coverage, business news, and specialist content produced by journalistic organisations is essential to platforms’ ability to target and ultimately monetise users.