By William Olson
In an observation viewed as another episode of neglect towards Australia’s public broadcasters, the Morrison government should include public broadcasters such as the ABC and SBS in their negotiations around shaping new media codes while they seek pay-for-use solutions with digital technology giants Facebook and Google, according to the Greens.
Sarah Hanson-Young, the Greens’ senator from South Australia who holds the party’s communications portfolio, feels that the government’s schemes for a communications update within a Mandatory Code legislation policy with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) would be incomplete without including the nation’s public broadcasters in the codes or even in the conversations.
“The power and greed of the tech giants is threatening journalism and public access to news. The government’s mandatory ACCC code could be part of the solution but the draft needs fixing and additional measures brought to the table,” Hanson-Young said on Monday.
The government’s plans to alter the media codes – as viewed by its intentional directive as a further attack on the ABC and SBS – has come on the heels of years of decay to the public broadcasters, despite the consistent high level of trust the public possesses in the ABC, and all the service that both the ABC and SBS have given over the years to regional and ethnic communities as well as in times of emergencies, such as with the bushfire crises and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 alone.
And many would claim that the decay has been intentional on the part of consecutive LNP governments.
- several rounds of cuts to ABC and SBS funding since 2014, totalling $783.3 million to date since then
- shedding 250 jobs from the ABC in its latest round of layoffs, with Emma Alberici’s respected role as lead economics reporter being the highest-profile redundancy
- a perceived swing to the right in ABC editorial policy in recent years, as evidenced on flagship panel shows such as Insiders, Q&A, 730, and The Drum versus years of perceived left-wing bias on the national public broadcaster
- appointments of cabinet communications ministers in Mitch Fifield and Paul Fletcher whose conflict-of-interest memberships in the extreme right-wing thinktank of the IPA would suggest that they don’t have the public broadcasters’ best public interests at heart
- appointments of Murdoch-friendly personnel such as Michelle Guthrie and Ita Buttrose in recent years to the role of the ABC’s managing director
- And speaking of Buttrose, her edict last week to ABC staff to agree to a wage freeze vote in order to fill budgetary gaps on an emergency broadcast funding shortfall of $5 million
And the consequence of these actions has affected not just editorial policy which is deemed as friendly treatment of LNP governments, but something which has diluted the ABC’s reputation for delivering unflinching, no-fear-nor-favour independent public affairs journalism, and damage to its Charter as well.
Moreover, Hanson-Young claims that while the government is seeking for Facebook and Google to pay the nation’s media giants fees to run their content – which has been tried and failed in Spain, France and Germany – they also need to ensure that the reform of any media codes must protect the public broadcasters and enhance freedoms for public interest journalism, its reporters, sources and whistleblowers.
“The ABC is Australia’s most trusted news source and should be included in any reform to tackle the greed of the big tech giants,” she said.
“It was a deliberate decision to lock the public broadcasters out of the draft code, allowing Facebook and Google to profit from their content for free – the Government should reverse this and drop their relentless attack on the ABC,” Hanson-Young added.
And while the ACCC’s notice of reforms remains in its draft stage, it also says that in addition to Facebook and Google, other digital platforms may be added in the future if they pose a threat to Australia’s media giants such as News Corp and Nine/Fairfax.
The considerations of the future of public interest journalism and protections for the ABC and SBS should also stand at the forefront of any reforms, Hanson-Young says.
“Australia’s media landscape is facing unprecedented challenges. Public interest journalism, reliable local news and trustworthy and informed analysis is essential for a robust and accountable democracy. The power imbalance between the big tech giants and Australian news organisations is unsustainable,” said Hanson-Young.
“It is therefore important that key parts of Australia’s media landscape are protected as part of this process. There is no reason for the ABC and SBS to be excluded from the code. Public broadcasters deserve a fair return for what they produce and what the tech platforms benefit from,” she added.
And as the AAP newswire service recently received a reprieve to allow it to continue operating – whereas the alternative had reportedly been for News Corp and Nine/Fairfax to create newswires of their own, and charging higher fees for its services – Hanson-Young maintains that the independence of the AAP also needs to be supported within the reformed code, for all media players large and small.
“It would be unconscionable for the Government not to find a way of supporting AAP while introducing a code that supports other media players. AAP is key media infrastructure that helps new players into the market and diversity across Australia’s media landscape,” she said.
Hanson-Young also stated that through an updated ACCC draft of the media codes, cost-effective benefits via the application of collective bargaining would have to suit small and independent media publishers as well as the likes of News Corp and Nine/Fairfax who are waging battles against Facebook and Google.
“If the aim of this code is to ensure the viability of Australia’s media, then the Government should ensure ABC is included, that AAP doesn’t fail and that small and independent publishers don’t miss out,” Hanson-Young said.
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