Originally published in The Canberra Times on March 11, 2024

For three years, Meta and Google have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to Australian publishers in exchange for using news content.

The digital platforms were brought to the negotiating table by the Morrison government’s introduction of the News Media Bargaining Code, world-leading legislation that proved it is possible to stand up to the tech giants.

Deals with Meta and Google have funded hundreds of Australian journalists. Australia Institute research, using SEEK data, found a 46 per cent rise in job ads for journalism roles after the code was introduced.

The $70 million a year that Meta reportedly pays makes a huge difference to Australian journalism, but is a drop in the bucket of the multinational’s reported $5 billion in annual Australian ad revenue. Now Meta – the parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp – has announced it will stop paying for Australian news.

The government should call Meta’s bluff. Google and Meta played hardball when the Morrison government first pursued the code. Google commissioned consultants to claim the company has enormous economic benefits for Australia; these inflated claims were ably punctured by Australia Institute senior economist David Richardson.

Notoriously, Facebook blocked all news pages in Australia for about two weeks, including health and emergency services pages – while a worldwide pandemic raged.

Facebook backed down after public outcry, albeit after extracting concessions from the government.

Even when they did enter media deals, Facebook funded far fewer organisations than Google did, and excluded the multilingual and multicultural SBS and the academic The Conversation.

Meta’s tantrum may just be the latest aggressive negotiation technique. The bargaining code has provisions to deal with recalcitrant digital platforms, and the Albanese government seems prepared to pursue them.

Is Meta really prepared to give up news on its platform? Facebook is hampered by privacy scandals, widespread misinformation and a fraught expansion into virtual reality via the “Metaverse”.

Australian users who cannot usefully interact with news stories may drop off Facebook altogether. If Meta is serious about competing with X/Twitter, Threads is going to need news content.

“Designating” Meta – which will send it to arbitration if it cannot reach agreement with the news media companies – is the obvious first step for the government.

Australia must prepare for the worst. If Meta does pull out of news, tens of millions of dollars will be lost from Australian journalism.

The Albanese government will need to find other ways to fund investigative reporting and local news.

The “rivers of gold” that were newspaper classified ads have dried up, but misinformation, polarisation and AI-generated fake content mean the need for bold, nuanced reporting is greater than ever.

Journalism is a public good.

Regardless of whether we personally read newspapers or tune in to current affairs programs, we all benefit from fearless reporting holding politicians to account, exposing corporate misconduct and giving voice to the powerless.

We also gain from belonging to a more literate, better-informed community – not one fed a steady diet of AI-generated fake news on a site that has been stripped of real news.

If the market cannot fund journalism, the government should step in. The public broadcasters – the ABC, SBS and NITV – need more funding. Australia spends less on the ABC than it did in the 1980s, and much less per person than the United Kingdom or Nordic countries such as Sweden, Norway and Denmark.

The British Broadcasting Corporation is watched and respected worldwide, extending the United Kingdom’s soft power globally, and the ABC could play a similar role in the Asia-Pacific.

The Nordic countries prove that government subsidies can promote diverse media ownership and arrest the decline in news. The number of weekly newspapers in Norway has remained stable over six decades, and while ownership has concentrated over the years it is much less concentrated than in Australia – where the top four media companies account for about 99 per cent of circulation.

Norway has subsidised news since the 1960s and 1970s, including direct support for production and distribution and exemption from their equivalent of the GST. Their “press support” policy subsidises the second largest newspaper in a city, promoting media diversity.

Similarly, Denmark subsidises private media based on number of journalists employed, socially diversity of their readership and how much democratically important political and cultural content they create.

Even if Meta backs down, the Albanese government needs to prioritise competition regulation for the tech sector.

The ACCC has already done the groundwork across seven Digital Platform Services reports.

Enormous power has conglomerated in Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple and X (formerly Twitter). These multinationals control what information people see, what software they run on their computers and phones and what personal information they give up for corporate profit.

Australia should work with Canada, the European Union and other countries to make the tech sector more diverse and networked.

Three years ago, Australia sent the world a message: it is possible to fight the big tech bullies and win. Now Facebook has struck back. The world will be watching what Australia does next.

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