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The news media bargaining code. The good, the bad and the hypocrisy.

Independent media is essential. Quality journalism is integral to a free and prosperous democracy. Google and Facebook are part of that ecosystem, so they should give as much as they take.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably back at work wondering what all of the ACCC, news media bargaining code hoo-ha is all about.

Well, sit back, grab a coffee, because this Mexican standoff is getting interesting.

The main agenda driving the code is the belief Google and Facebook have too much power. Ultimately, they’re making money from media publishers’ content and not renumerating them fairly.

In other words, media publishers have struggled to reverse three trends: advertising dollars going to Google and Facebook; getting people to pay for news; and losing control of audience data. No mean feat I might add, so they’ve had to resort to this.

For context, reports suggest 80 per cent of all digital ad spend in Australia is with Google and Facebook. In fact, 68 per cent of all ad spend in Australia apparently goes to Google and Facebook – which is higher than most markets. Equating to a heap of lost revenue for media publishers and also in tax dollars for the government; hence the motivation to drive through the code.

Whether this code is good or bad, probably isn’t that simple and depends very much on where you sit. However, the consensus seems to be that Facebook and Google will back down (I’m not so sure) and if they don’t, people will just use Bing et al, so more fool them.

It’s worth noting, that whilst the code currently relates to Google and Facebook (and we assume all entities they own), it also states any digital platform could be included if there is an imbalance in power. Essentially, if they’re replaced by another platform, they will become part of the code.

OK, to start, what’s wrong with the code?

In principle, not a lot. Independent media is essential. Quality journalism is integral to a free and prosperous democracy. Google and Facebook are part of that ecosystem, so they should give as much as they take. You can’t argue with that.

But scratch beneath the surface, the code smells a bit fishy.

Not a single major publisher has come out and committed to using any revenue from the code to invest in journalism.

Unlike the French code that recently passed. As well as payment, why does the Australian code require Google and Facebook to provide the following:

·   Advance notice of changes to algorithmic ranking and presentation of news

·   Information about how and when Google and Facebook make available user data collected through users’ interactions with news content.

This seems like a spurious request and the main agenda, potentially motivated by the impending Cookie Apocalypse.

The plot thickens when you ask why a few publishers should get this unfair advantage and what happens with that exclusive information? After all, many publishers own other commercial entities like Nine’s stake in Domain. Some publishers also have in house agencies representing brands.  

Then there’s a few moral sticking points.

Let’s not forget, Google and Facebook are free services driving traffic to publishers. Media publishers can choose to be on them or not.

Many media publishers create, and engineer content that manipulates digital platforms’ algorithms to drive impressions and search rankings. This has led to much greater risks to democracy, such as fear mongering, the polarisation of society and the propagation of fake news. All studies have shown these things drive greater traffic than facts and truth. 

Where is the code that stamps out the source of this stuff and not just the platforms that rightly have a responsibility to monitor and regulate the content on their platforms? Why should platforms solely be responsible for this? Should media publishers subsidise platforms for the cost of fact checking their content?

Where was the code when the majority of ad spend was with a handful of media publishers?

When media publishers use social content from the general public and celebrities in news stories, are they paying for that content?

I’m sure there are other things I’ve missed off this list, but the code is very one way.

 But what good things could come from the code?

Unless Google and Facebook follow through on public statements, not much will change. Media publishers will simply have their businesses subsidised. A few will do great things with the revenue and revolutionise journalism, but most probably won’t change much at all. 

However, let’s just say they do follow through. 

We might actually see more innovation in a few areas.

Advertising. The fact that 68 per cent of all ad spend is on just two platforms suggests media plans are blunt and extremely homogeneous. Perhaps a new era of creativity and smart communications planning will return.  

Marketing. The disproportionate spend on just two platforms may well be diverted towards actually doing things that build brands and not only lower funnel sales activity.

News. Media publishers will start to innovate, finding interesting models and methods to deliver news and get it paid for. Micro-payments for articles rather than monthly subscriptions for everything is one they can have for free.

News will no longer be created for algorithms. This will lead to better quality journalism.

After decades of thinking average news should be free, we the general public will understand the importance of paying for said quality journalism.  

So, what will happen next?

Google and Facebook will follow through on their threats unless the code is changed. They have done it before. 

The code will be changed, but I expect everything other than payments to be removed.

Once payments are made, platforms will continue to build out their own news services, ensuring this content is prioritised.

Media publishers relying on Google and Facebook to keep them going won’t last long.

Ask Jeeves probably won’t make a massive comeback.

Words by Carl Moggridge


Independent media is essential. Quality journalism is integral to a free and prosperous democracy. Google and Facebook are part of that ecosystem, so they should give as much as they take.