6 September 2020
Presumably the whole world is watching whether the Australian government can make google and Facebook pay to carry news items.
The reason is quite clear. They gain customers for being able to point them to the news sources, and then they get the advertising revenue from people on their platforms, while the people who collected the news make no money for having done so, and then lose the advertising that used to come to them when people bought their papers or watched their TV channels.
So initially I was quite in favour of the idea. Here were big foreign companies, structured to pay no tax, grabbing all the advertising and the media was dying because of the lack of advertising revenue. Strangely the ABC was not going to get any revenue- it was only going to the commercial media. I wondered if this was a good thing. Would google and Facebook favour the ABC as it was free, and direct people there rather than to commercial media. But if they did, would this produce a reaction from Murdoch, and would then the government do something more to favour Murdoch and disadvantage the ABC- hey, they are already cutting the ABC budget ?at Murdoch’s request.
But I was thinking that the rise of fake news and conspiracy theories, which threaten any rational voting or policy development is largely due to the social media behemoths. Everyone is equal in that they can post what they like, and things that are more interesting and clickable are more equal than facts. Added to this, in order to get people to stay there and click around, they are connected up with things and people that they like and who think like them. So we are all reinforced. We friend the people we like, and they friend us. And we get our facts from them, and they from us. So if we do not really chase facts in this candy store of pleasant experiences, we can soon have our own bubble, with no need for facts. Pontius Pilate has been much quoted for asking, ‘What is truth?’ He did not want to know what the truth was, and many who quote him are of the same mind. Exact truth may not always be clear, but you can get closer to it if you try, and hopefully that is what science and good journalism tries to achieve.
So when I saw the Australian government leading the world in trying to get revenue for the commercial media, when they had not even been able to get workable legislation to get them to pay some tax, I wondered who is driving this. The companies that have bought our privatised toll roads have the government collect their tolls, and fine people if they do not pay. So I wondered is this just Murdoch getting the government to collect revenue for him? Murdoch was very much in favour of the market as he gobbled up smaller media players. The Rudd and Gillard governments were ruthlessly attacked and ultimately destroyed by Murdoch, and it was always my opinion that this was because they would not change the media ownership laws to allow Murdoch to have nearly all of it- the need for balance and diversity being totally irrelevant and profits the only objective. As soon as Tony Abbott was Prime Minister this law was changed in Murdoch’s favour.
Now the market has changed. New technology has taken the money from newspapers and free to air TV, which were funded from their advertising. The model had worked reasonably well when I was young. The Fairfax family were rich from the advertising, and let the journalists write what they liked, or so we believed. With Packer, it was not quite so clear. The slogan was ‘Publish and be Damned’, but while that may have been true for more salacious material or less powerful targets, there was a suggestion that some areas were off limits, like tobacco when there was a lot of cigarette ads in the paper. Later, as Murdoch became more powerful, stories seemed to be changed a lot to suit his interest. When Indonesia had a very authoritarian government Murdoch’s coverage of it was very benign as he sought to get a satellite TV licence. This has advanced further so that now there is more advertorial content. Before local papers closed, people bought a quarter page ad and got to write the article on the rest of the page. Ideal for restaurants and clubs, but independent journalism? I think not, but it was/is the norm.
Once, stories were written first, then headline writers wrote the headlines for them. Now even senior writers are being asked to write a story to fit under a pre-written, catchy headline. Hey, we have to get a click to get the ad revenue. Senior writers have told me that the headline may be misleading and they have to slant their stories so it is not seen as absurd. What effect is this having? What about people who only read the headline? It no longer has substance- it was just put there so that they would notice it.
The ABC has been much criticised by the commercial media, and Murdoch in particular because it just gets money to provide a news and cultural service. It has a different funding model, and if the commercial media has no money, they want the ABC to have none either.
But it is time to look at the root cause. The model of funding media and journalism by advertising revenue is broken. It was fraying before google and Facebook etc came, and it is very broken now. Murdoch was quite happy to let the market sort it out, when he was winning and buying up his competition. Now he is getting the government to get him money from his technological competitors. And the Australian government, which seems more beholden to him than any other national governments is doing his bidding.
If google and Facebook decide to offer less news and change their algorithms to favour ‘free’ news sources, is this likely to affect the content of our searches? And will there be even more fake news and conspiracy theories than now? Quite possibly.
I have no particular brief to act for google and Facebook, and find their ads telling me that the end of the world is nigh almost laughable. I think that they must pay tax, and this must be based on their revenue, and not on the profits that can be so easily fiddled with foreign loans and transfer payments etc. But it seems that there are 3 related problems:
- The government has a problem- how to get tax from these behemoths.
- The public have a problem how to get unbiased honest news and science facts.
- The commercial media have a problem how to pay their journalists when the revenue has gone to social media to whom trivia and produces just as much revenue as news.
We need to discuss this carefully, so that facts and public interest win.