Laughing Stock: Australia’s new media code rivals our climate policy for absurdity

Feb 22, 2021

Google good, Facebook bad. That sums up mainstream media coverage of the Coalition government’s bizarre new media code. That’s because Google paid up, Facebook decided it was extortion and called Josh Frydenberg’s bluff, banning Australian news. The mainstream media has been corrupted.

Zuckerberg and Frydenberg. Photo collage: Alex Anstey

As if Rupert Murdoch and the Coalition had not already flubbed Australia’s credibility around the world for their failure on climate change, now we look like we don’t know how the internet works.

It is either that, the Dumb Aussies narrative, or something more sinister. The Morrison government, with the feeble connivance of Labor, has demanded Google and Facebook pay News Corp, Nine and Coalition-friendly media organisations for “content”, for their stories that is.

Yet, in their childish fervor to bust into the market and prop up these government friendly publishers, their bizarre Digital Media Code has got it completely wrong. Google and Facebook don’t even publish their stories, merely links to their stories.

The reader then clicks on the link and it takes them to the publisher’s website. Google and Facebook are doing the legacy media a favour; it’s free advertising.

This Digital Media Code has nothing to do with policy and everything to do with politics. Morrison & co have just bought off the media in what may well be an election year.

With the UK trust fund-backed Guardian Australia the latest to sign with Google, only the ABC remains outside the tent, apparently too terrified of upsetting the government, and perhaps themselves too tempted by the spectre of Google’s money, to say anything. So far, barely a squeak.

If Australia is regarded with faint horror for its failure to act on climate science, this media “world first” will well and truly have us all smeared across the globe. It really is the flip-side of corporate capture on coal and gas.

In climate and energy, governments are captured by fossil fuel companies, captured to the point of siding with Donald Trump on emissions timetables. In this case, major media organisations and government have captured each other.

Zuckerberg v Frydenberg

Australia’s treasurer Josh Frydenberg was at Harvard in the same year the undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook. That was 2005. So when Josh rang Mark last week to discuss his Digital Media Code, one might have expected some cordiality between the old-time Ivy Leaguers.

It was only a few hours later however, that the Facebook founder called Josh’s bluff and banned Australian news sites from his platform altogether, clumsily sweeping up emergency services and all manner of community Facebook pages in the ban.

Zuckerberg is betting his show of force will deter other governments from caving in to their media mates. Google on the other hand has merely bought off big media. Guardian Australia is the last one to strike a deal so now the entire Canberra Bubble has been locked in with payments prised out of Google by the Coalition government.

Google News Showcase all show

According to Google sources however, they regard their pay-offs as just that, protection money, money to get the mainstream media off their backs. When asked whether this small player, Michael West Media, would have a chance of getting money from Google News Showcase, we were told probably not.

Most of these deals with Big Media were struck, at least negotiated, before even the draft Bill had been made law. Google simply went out and picked off each organisation one by one. Four mid-sized operators to start: The Conversation, Crikey, New Daily and Saturday Paper.

Then the big fanboys. Kerry Stokes’ Seven Network, an effusive cheerleader for the Coalition. Then Nine, the only media company to host a Liberal Party fundraiser, then News Corp, Rupert Murdoch’s neo-conservative propaganda machine.

Murdoch and Nine were the prime movers. First, the ACCC was bamboozled into holding an inquiry which purported to be about fair competition. Then the Government was persuaded to think the issues were media diversity and quality of journalism, and not about advertising revenue.

Google had sniffed the wind, setting up its Google News Showcase to head off regulatory action, to lure influential publishers with payments for their content. In light of this organisation’s efforts to find a phone number, even a human being, to talk with, the Showcase it would appear is just that. So we have Google payments made with no reference the the Code – the government’s laws – and an elusive program called Showcase.

On a short term basis, Google’s PR campaign has worked. Facebook has been smashed by all the same media who just picked up millions in cash extorted from Google. Google’s press has been good. The usual hysterical voices have been slamming Facebook for its “dog act” to all Australians, etc.

Politics not policy

If the government were given to making good policy, rather than locking in big media mates for the next election, they would simply tax Facebook and Google properly, then deploy the funds to subsidise public interest journalism, perhaps along with tax incentives. They have failed to tax them properly. Although both digital platforms pay more income tax in Australia than Rupert Murdoch’s News Australia Holdings (zero for 6 years now), it is still negligible for their size and market power.

Their real (not claimed) profit margins in this country are so huge that it is far more effective for them to pay, say $100 million collectively to a few corrupted old media companies than 30% tax in the dollar (before their tax avoidance tricks).

Some data points (using Similarweb data to make it comparable, may differ from our own data).

  • Junkee.com has done a deal with Google – their total Australian traffic (January) is 370,000 visits – 100,000 less than Michael West Media.
  • News.com.au gets 8.2% of their traffic from social media
  • smh.com.au gets 7.3%
  • abc.net.au 7.5%
  • MWM 39.7% (60% of that is FB, but I have no way of breaking down that figure from others)
  • News Limited suggested they were losing $1billion in annual revenue to Facebook and Google
  • Nine Media (Costello) thought it was at least $600 million.

In terms of public interest, the media code will only distort news for consumers. Facebook users, already barraged by fake news, will have less real news to balance their views. The Google payments will bring established old media players even closer and more dependent on government here. It keeps old inefficient businesses alive while penalising its smaller independent rivals.

And as this story in RenewEconomy contends, it will only drag out and exacerbate the toxic influence of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in undermining critical action on climate change – not to mention all public policy.

Look forward to a more captured political class and a more subservient mainstream media.

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