Government and governance, Law, Science and technology | Australia

26 February 2021

The media’s fervent coverage of the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code raises crucial questions about how to ensure impartial reporting when policy developments affect the media directly, Anna Belgiorno-Nettis writes.

The Australian Parliament, news publishers, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and what feels like everyone other than Google and Facebook have had their way, and a mandatory code to address perceived power imbalances between digital platforms and Australian media is becoming law.

There has been much debate about whether the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code is the right policy move. Yet there are other, much less-debated questions around what role the media can and should have played throughout the process.

The Code’s development has done the relatively rare thing of turning the journalistic lens onto journalism itself. This raises a key question for those implementing and evaluating the Code: how does shifting the spotlight in this way affect the media’s ability to carry out its important role of informing and engaging society on public policy?

The Code itself recognises this journalistic responsibility in the way it defines ‘core news content’ as ‘content that reports, investigates or explains issues or events that are relevant in engaging Australians in public debate and in informing democratic decision-making’.

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News publishers have an essential role to inform the public on how the rest of civil society – primarily the government and all its arms – wields power to help keep it in check. News helps us as a society decide what government policy is best for us.

In fact, that function is the very reason why the government proposed this unprecedented regulation. As the Code’s Explanatory Memorandum says:

‘Government intervention is necessary because of the public benefit provided by the production and dissemination of news, and the importance of a strong independent media in a well-functioning democracy.’

Quite apart from Facebook and Google’s problems with the Code, the media’s public benefit role raises another issue: how can that function be carried out when government uses its power to create regulation that protects the revenue of the very media reporting on that use of power?

Again, the Code itself recognises that the media must abide by certain principles in order to carry out its democratic function. The Code requires a news business to be subject to professional journalism standards, such as the Australian Press Council’s, before it can benefit from the Code’s requirements on platforms to pay news businesses to distribute their news content.

Importantly, at the top of the Australian Press Council’s standards list is balance and fairness. However, when the implementation of the Code is so fundamentally linked to a media organisation’s revenue, how can the public expect that organisation to report on the policy in a fair and balanced way?

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If the ability to fund journalism is inextricably linked to a proposed policy, it is hard to imagine anyone, journalists included, being able to approach it truly impartially and treating it equally to any other policy.

This has made for some catchy headlines, but with questionable impartiality, with rhetoric from ‘Facebook adopting an ‘incredibly childish’ approach to media bargaining code’ to ‘Google is acting the bully in fight over new media code’ and most recently ‘Facebook refriends Australia after last-minute changes to media code’.

Not that journalists lacked the ammunition for such entertaining headings. Google, Facebook, the ACCC, and the government have engaged in remarkably open, hard-line debate. Even if arguably not impartial, negative coverage of some of their actions has certainly had evidence to support it.

Yet, it must be asked: what does this tell us about the media’s ability to maintain balance with this piece of legislation? When a piece of public policy directly impacts the voice tasked with informing the public about that policy – is there a need to find alternatives?

As one possibility, could the many entities that have evaluated the Code take on a quasi-reporting position? The ACCC itself, many ministers in the second reading debate, over 50 bill submission writers, the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Bills, and the Senate Economics Legislation Committee have all critiqued and contributed significantly to the Code’s development.

Still, they all tend to rely on the media to convey their thoughts to the public. Were there a more direct channel to this discourse, could policy critiques be presented to the public in a more balanced way?

Alternatively, when a policy topic like the Code directly impacts how much profit a media organisation can make, could reporting on it by non-profit media sources be prioritised?

There are many questions and possible solutions to contemplate, but one thing is clear: this Code’s journey and the Australian media’s time in the spotlight is not over yet. So no matter how things evolve from here, policymakers and evaluators must keep in mind how important it is to inform the public in that fair, balanced way journalism stands for.

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