Clock ticking for News Media Bargaining Code as election approaches

As the federal election approaches, the clock is ticking for the Morrison Government to complete its promise to level the playing field between news media and the radio industry. There has been no commitment yet from the government about whether this will happen before the election.

While individual deals have been reached with some networks and newspaper publishers, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher has not made any commitments so far regarding all radio news services. His spokesperson has told radioinfo today: “Any discussions between digital platforms and media organisations are matters for them.”

In regards to the government enforcing a deal by designating a digital platform under the news media bargaining code, the spokesperson referred us to the Treasurer who has the mandate to act on that matter. The spokesperson for the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has told radioinfo:

“As has been the case to date, the Government expects all parties to work constructively towards reaching commercial agreements in the spirit of collaboration and good faith encouraged by the Code. A Treasury review of the Code is underway. 

“Treasury will consult stakeholders, including news businesses, before providing a report to Government in September 2022.”

That will be well after the election, which must be held by May this year.

Shadow Minister for Communications  Michelle Rowland says Labor “was outcomes focussed and indicated in-principle support for a workable Code to address the bargaining imbalance between dominant digital platforms and the news media… But Labor also noted that the Code itself was not a silver bullet and that the government must do more to support public interest journalism.” See her full response to radioinfo below.

The recently tabled report from the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts inquiring into regional news acknowledged the importance of regional radio and tv services as increasingly important sources of local news, in addition to newspapers, yet Facebook and Google have not yet concluded deals with these sectors as a whole.

There have certainly been benefits from the government’s legislation so far for some Australian media companies, and the approach is being seen as a precedent worldwide. The ABC has benefited from a deal struck as part of the News Media Bargaining Code to expand its rural and regional coverage with 55 new regional reporters and Nine Entertainment also clinched a deal last year with Facebook and Google. Nine Entertainment’s Chairman Peter Costello is a former Liberal government minister.

Under the mandatory code of conduct, technology giants Google and Facebook are required to negotiate with Australian media companies over payment for news content and notify them of algorithm changes. If a satisfactory deal cannot be reached the Treasurer has the power to mandate requirements. Radio and tv companies that have not reached a satisfactory agreement are urging the government to finalise an agreement before its current term ends to prevent Facebook and Google waiting out their term of office and further stalling for time.

Commercial Radio Australia CEO Joan Warner says the digital giants have yet to reach commercial agreements with the majority of commercial radio stations despite the ACCC granting CRA authorisation last October to collectively bargain over payment for radio content featured on those platforms.

She recently said the radio industry is “continuing to seek commercial outcomes but if Google and Facebook are unwilling to negotiate fair compensation, then stronger actions and designation may be required.”

When granting CRA authorisation to negotiate with the digital giants, the ACCC acknowledged that “commercial radio stations play an important role in providing regional and local reporting,” yet an agreement across the whole sector has still not been reached.  

SBS director of news and current affairs Mandi Wicks told the standing committee inquiry into regional news media: “Unfortunately, they [Facebook] have chosen not to do an agreement with us at this stage. We don’t have a particular reason as to why that is the case. We would welcome further negotiation with them in order to continue to invest in public service journalism.”

There are fears that organisations that have not yet reached agreements, including commercial radio networks, SBS and community radio, will be disadvantaged if deals are not enforced across the board in a timely manner.

The principle behind the Media Bargaining Code is similar to copyright law where the creator of content is entitled to a share of revenue if others make profits from their work. It is different from grant funding, which is more like a gift and cannot be guaranteed. Grant funding does not necessarily recognise the inherent value in the original journalistic work to create a profit.

Commercial radio operates newsrooms across the country and generates a substantial amount of local news. Many community radio stations also have local newsrooms.

The Community Broadcasting sector has recently expanded the quality of its local news through improvements to National Radio News, expansion of the Indigenous News Service and increased local news bulletins on many stations.

News content from these organisations is indexed from station websites through Google bots and surfaced through Google’s search engine and shared on Facebook and other social media platforms, delivering huge profits for the digital services without them having to commit any resources to gathering that news.

As part of the parliamentary inquiry into regional newpaper services, the committee surveyed regional news consumers and asked the following question:

In the past 7 days, how did you access your news? (select all that apply)

Almost 1,200 of the respondents (68%) selected regional news service (print or digital) and almost half chose radio. The results were:

  • Regional news service (print or digital) – 68.81%
  • Metropolitan news service (print or digital) – 41.20%
  • Television – 62.69%
  • Radio – 48.61%
  • Social media – 55.32%
  • Other (please specify) – 11.28%

Respondents who selected ‘Other’ largely cited that they accessed their news from the ABC website or the ABC news mobile application.

The large response for the Social Media category can be assumed to contain a high amount of local news shared or indexed in search engines from information compiled by local radio, tv or newspaper news reporters.

The committee’s report said “local media provides a range of relevant information concerning access to social services, delivering weather warnings, and providing information about community developments.”

The report includes many submissions from regional news organisations, quoting the publisher of the Collie River Valley Bulletin telling the committee about the importance of local newspapers, saying that, “even where there is an online social media presence, the trusted source of news is still local news publications over television or radio.”

The CBAA’s submission added that hyper-local organisations have filled the gap left by traditional regional news outlets closing. Over the past five years radio stations have evolved through not only “saving, reviving or creating local publications but also teaming up with emerging hyper-local publishers.”

Jon Bisset told the inquiry:

“Over the past five years, we’ve been seeing a significantly heightened trend in the number of stations reviving or creating local publications or teaming up with emerging hyperlocal publishers. This ensures that communities shall have access to local, targeted news, community information, emergency warnings and those sorts of things. For example, 4RFM in Moranbah publishes a community magazine called the Moranbah Community News. It’s helmed by a journalist who lost her job at a local paper because of the decline in regional media offerings. It’s now the only local publication in the area. Another example is: regular Byron Shire Echo reporter Mia Armitage who also heads up Bay FM’s community radio newsroom. Another example is: Torres Strait’s 4MW has brought their local paper back to life after it ran its final edition late last year. That station, 4MW, shares its resources with the paper and journalists and works to cover stories from Thursday Island and 14 other communities in the outer islands.

“Community media organisations have shown a great deal of innovation and creativity in exploring and developing new ways to deliver news to the communities. Every dollar spent on community radio stations far exceeds its value in benefit returned to the community.”

2WEB Chairman Ian Cole told the inquiry:

“As Jon said, local community media is a very powerful thing, especially in rural and remote areas like the area that I come from.

“Bourke’s local newspaper, the Western Herald, has documented the events and the history of outback New South Wales since towns were established along the Darling River, and it has been here for the last 135 years… In 2018, after 130-odd years of operation, the paper was threatened with closure because, basically, it wasn’t making money. But our cooperative, which is a community media cooperative, was able to save it by relocating the newspaper to our community radio station to save on costs and get some sort of economy of scale. We have drawn up joint sponsorship packages for both print and radio. We’ve grown from having 1½ paid local journalists to about five local journalists… Community morale has been lifted, and there’s a sense of belonging and purpose created every Thursday when volunteers gather at the radio station to physically put the paper together.”

The Judith Nielsen Institute’s submission to the inquiry said large publishers are returning to local and regional news markets and that new media models and technology are also being launched by smaller local and regional publishers.

We asked the Labor Party about its policy on this issue as the election approaches. Michelle Rowland, Shadow Minister for Communications gave us a detailed reply to that question:

“Labor supported the passage of the News Media Bargaining Code, which was spearheaded by the ACCC through the Digital Platforms Inquiry and represented Australia’s attempt to arrest the decline in public interest journalism by capturing revenue from dominant digital platforms, as other jurisdictions had attempted to do with varying degrees of success. Australian media companies should get a decent return for their investment in public interest journalism from digital platforms such as Google and Facebook. 

“From the outset, Labor was outcomes focussed and indicated in-principle support for a workable Code to address the bargaining imbalance between dominant digital platforms and the news media. Labor hoped that the Code would make a significant contribution to the news media and we were pleased at evidence it helped improve the responsiveness of digital platforms in some instances. But Labor also noted that the Code itself was not a silver bullet and that the government must do more to support public interest journalism, noting that the government had failed to address a number of other recommendations in the Digital Platforms Inquiry. Indeed, I moved a second reading amendment to the News Media Bargaining Code Bill to this effect.

“The Morrison Government talks a big game about taking on big tech and asserting our sovereignty, but where does it leave sovereignty if there’s still no deal between Facebook and the national broadcaster, SBS, under the Code?

“Meanwhile another six months will elapse before the review of the News Media Bargaining Code is finalised. Labor will consider the findings of that review closely in due course, but we don’t need a review to tell us that the Code is not all things to all media, or that it was never intended to be, nor that other well-calibrated measures are needed, in concert, to support the broader news media ecosystem.

“The News Media Bargaining Code was only one of the ACCC’s recommendations and many news media companies are understandably frustrated that the Morrison Government has overpromised and underdelivered when it comes to supporting public interest journalism in Australia.”


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