News Media Bargaining Code: One out all out

Opinion from Steve Ahern.

Rod Sims makes a good point in his article about the News Media Bargaining Code, that the mere threat of arbitration evened the bargaining power between Australian media and the international digital giants, as both sides wanted to avoid letting an arbitrator decide commercial arrangements.

In public hearings into the renewal of the deals last month the Parliamentary Senate Inquiry heard from major Australian news publishers who told the inquiry that the deals should be renewed to fund public interest journalism in Australia.

Meta’s regional director of policy Mia Garlick told the inquiry Meta (Facebook) believes that the current laws are “unworkable.”

She indicated that Facebook might implement a ban on news content, which would stop users sharing content created by Australian outlets. As Senator Hanson-Young questioned Garlick, she pressed her to clarify the nature of a ban.

Senator Hanson-Young: So individual users sharing links amongst themselves of information, public interest, news and facts that they find interesting and want their friends on Facebook or Instagram to see—that will be banned.

Ms Garlick : To comply with the law, yes, we need to stop the sharing of mainstream media news. Obviously, people can continue to have their own personal conversations completely freely.

The full transcript of that part of the hearing is available here, it’s worth reading in detail.

Ms Garlick also said: “We certainly acknowledge the need for greater transparency and accountability of digital platforms. That’s why we’ve long advocated for government regulation of digital platforms. We were a founding signatory to the DIGI Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation, and we’ve constructively engaged with policymakers and regulators on how to address many of the issues being considered by the committee.”

During the conversation, Ms Garlick maintained that News is only 3% of Australians’ usage of Facebook, but stats from publishers submitted to the parliamentary inquiries over time indicate that the figure could be much higher, depending on the publisher’s business model.

Facebook’s News Tab has already gone, but plenty of news is shared every day by Australian Facebook users who share links from major newspapers, tv and radio news pages and even trade publications such as radioinfo. I looked up our analytics. Of our 54,000 readers in the past 7 days, about 10% came from social sharing links, mainly Facebook. Search and direct links were about equal at 40% each, with about 24,000 people coming to us via search (mostly Google) and the other 24,000 coming from links in our daily newsletter email (sign up here, it’s free).

The thing that worries me about Mia Garlick’s statements is that she envisages a ban on Australian news publishers, which she characterised as ‘mainstream media.’ In some circles that term is being weaponised against credible news publishers to try and undermine their credibility. As I have said in many policy forums, ‘mainstream media’ should be more appropriately named as ‘Responsible Media,’ who check first then publish, in contrast with social media and search tools (including the looming AI search engines) who are better described as ‘Irresponsible Media,’ because they publish first, then check, then (sometimes) take corrective action if needed.

Meta’s proposed ban on responsible Australian news media content could open the flood gates to sharing of disinformation and propaganda-peddling publishers from overseas, who, I assume from Ms Garlick’s carefully worded statements, would not be banned in Australia. This would spell double trouble for Australians, who would be flooded with misinformation posing as news, without any credible news content from responsible local publishers to balance it.

Senator Hanson-Young raised this point in the Inquiry:

Senator Hanson-Young: You’re an advertising business.

Ms Garlick : Yes.

Senator Hanson-Young: You take money from people to run ads, and some of those ads are telling lies. At what point do you take responsibility for platforming and making profits off lies?


Let me recount a conversation I had with a colleague a couple of months ago. She told me that her teenage daughter was outraged that young women had to travel interstate to get expensive abortions. She and all her friends were planning some protests and letter writing about it. The trouble is that they were reading and sharing news from America, where this is one of the many current political issues in the lead up to the US election. My friend, a journalist who discusses news regularly with her children, was astounded and had to explain to her daughter that in Australia there are no laws against abortion, the procedure is available at most hospitals and clinics and that, with a doctor’s referral, it can be claimed on Medicare. Meta has told the Inquiry that young people especially will be disadvantaged by not getting news on Meta, but examples like this show that maybe some of that so called ‘news’ would be better off not reaching young Australians.

Google is currently negotiating with news publishers and has not proposed a similar news ban, but don’t get me started on the manipulation of search content by Google and other search engines… that’s a column for another time.

I support the idea of search and social media platforms paying publishers for being able to use their news content.

However, if it comes to a stalemate where irresponsible publishers such as Facebook turn off Australian news, then the social media news tap must be turned off for every publisher, including the international ones, the fake news sites, the propaganda publishers that are blocked then reappear in another guise as regulators play whack a mole, and the ‘freedom bloggers’ that are spewing misinformation into our country. That misinformation comes in sight-unseen, due to the algorithms that personalise each feed and render it almost impossible to track news sources in any meaningful manner to determine national trends.

If news is turned off, then it should be ‘one out all out.’ Blocking only responsible Australian news publishers would be extremely dangerous for this country.


About the Author:

Steve Ahern has been guiding and commenting on media public policy in Australia and internationally for the past 20 years through his training and consultancy company AMT.

Steve has also worked for AFTRS, the ABC and the ABU in his media career, and is the founding editor of radioinfo.





Disclosure: radioinfo is not a party to the News Media Bargaining Code.

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