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Interview Australia v Facebook & Google: how will the new law affect public-interest journalism?

International Federation of Journalists general secretary ANTHONY BELLANGER speaks to Morning Star editor Ben Chacko about the 'Goliath and Goliath' struggle between old and new media monopolies

GOVERNMENTS around the world are watching Australia, which became the first country to legislate to make Google and Facebook pay for news content last week.

The process has not been a smooth one – with Facebook dramatically “unfriending Australia” on February 18, shutting down Australian media pages and many more besides. The sweeping cull also cut access to some government and public information websites, as well as those of trade unions.

Facebook relented a few days later, but the message – that the firm is large and powerful enough to wreak havoc with the public’s access to information if it finds government policy objectionable – could hardly be clearer, especially since Facebook’s supposed climbdown came after it had secured further concessions in direct negotiations between Mark Zuckerberg and Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

“The first headlines said Facebook had backed down – in reality it looks like the government has again watered down the bargaining code and Facebook continues to threaten that it won’t hesitate to block news and public information in future if its interests are threatened,” International Federation of Journalists general secretary Anthony Bellanger tells the Morning Star.

“What this episode has done is expose for all to see the true nature of companies like Facebook and Google. They talk about media freedom and freedom of expression, but their only real interest is how to profit from news, how to turn information into a commodity, monopolise the market and use their power to further enrich themselves. Their recent behaviour makes the case for regulation even stronger.”

I’m glad he’s mentioned Google, because while the company has appeared to co-operate more gracefully than Facebook with the new law, there have also been concerns over its landmark agreement with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp to pay for news access. 

Facebook and Google have presented this battle as about freedom of expression; News Corp says it is about how we ensure quality journalism is funded in an era of quick and free access to news. But is this really what’s going on?

“Both are right – it is about freedom of expression, and about how we fund a diverse media in future,” Bellanger acknowledges – “but they are both on the other side!

“Neither Murdoch nor Facebook has the public interest at heart. They have their own narrow commercial – and political – interests.

“We welcomed the fact that the Australian government was taking steps to regulate the tech giants but always argued encouraging private commercial deals between tech giants and hedge fund owned publishers was not the right answer. 

“That simply entrenches existing monopolies who have cut jobs and closed media, creating huge news deserts and restricting the diversity of media as concentration of ownership grew.

“The danger is, other countries are talking about adopting the Australian model. Our affiliates – including Britain’s National Union of Journalists – have argued governments need to take bigger, bolder steps.

“Tax the tech giants. If governments were to tax their revenues or their profits, an independent fund could use those revenues to support a news recovery plan, saving jobs, sustaining media, supporting new voices.”

The NUJ has been campaigning for a news recovery plan along these lines to address the crisis in journalism, especially the mass closure or hollowing out of local titles, which both undermines local democracy as scrutiny of local government disappears and has accelerated the disappearance of working-class voices from the media. 

Fewer entry-level jobs providing the experience often necessary to move on to national titles gives an additional edge to aspiring journalists who can afford to spend extended periods working unpaid internships. 

Mergers of local titles also intensify the concentration of media ownership – Claudia Webbe MP pointed out at the Morning Star’s Labour conference fringe last year that just three companies, News UK (a branch of News Corp), the Mail Group and Reach, owned 83 per cent of all British newspapers – a significant increase on the 71 per cent they owned five years earlier. And the decline in paper sales also increases the sway of corporate advertisers over titles. All these trends have been accelerated by the pandemic, with lockdowns hitting print sales of newspapers hard.

A news recovery plan, Bellanger argues, “could not only retain jobs but build and sustain new media and voices, assuring more diversity, more quality information and more jobs. 

“The receipt of funds [from a scheme funded by a tax on the tech giants] must be strictly conditioned on investing in journalism. We could ensure that any money raised does not just go to propping up the same monopoly media owners. 

“Any monies must be used transparently to build and sustain a genuinely public-interest media that supports, among others, community, not-for-profit and local media. Such funds should not be used to fund more mergers or reward shareholders, but to pay journalists a fair share of the profits made from their work, to retain professional journalists’ jobs, to save public-interest media.”

No such outcome seems likely from what Australia’s Green Left – whose page fell victim to the February 18 cull – calls “a power struggle between the old media oligarchs, such as the detestable Murdoch, and the new media oligarchies like Facebook and Google.”

On the British left, we are well aware of the distorting effect on democracy of the old media tycoons. We have just been through five years of relentless media demonisation of the opposition because it was led by someone serious about redistributing power and wealth. And if the media’s treatment of Jeremy Corbyn plumbed new depths of dishonesty, even the half-hearted pleas for “responsible capitalism” from Ed Miliband at the 2015 election provoked near-hysterical fury from much of the print media.

But the idea that “social media” provides a problem-free alternative is also now coming up against the similarly unaccountable power of the handful of corporations that dominate the field. 

Facebook and Twitter posed as responsible guardians of public discourse, winning plaudits from the left, when they banned Donald Trump or more recently took action to close pages controlled by the Burmese military after it seized power in a coup. 

But both also have a record of censoring and attacking the left. Facebook famously closed down the account belonging to former Ecaudorian president Rafael Correa, which had well over a million followers. Twitter was accused of ignoring the creation of masses of fake accounts that promoted support for Bolivia’s military coup in late 2019. 

When commercial or political considerations align them with reactionary governments they have tremendous power for harm. In India, Facebook has been slammed for ignoring its own code of conduct to allow powerful politicians of the ruling Hindu chauvinist BJP to incite violence against Muslims, while Twitter closed hundreds of accounts supportive of the ongoing farmers’ struggle against marketising reforms, including many belonging to professional journalists covering the protests, in response to requests from the Narendra Modi government.

“Corporate censorship of political opinion is not new – media barons have done it for centuries,” Bellanger argues. “Of course it is right that we do not allow the internet and social media to become places where hate is allowed to thrive, where Nazis can organise and where bullying flourishes, so there must be forms of self-regulation that stop such threats, but it also cannot just be a place where corporations get to decide what is and what is not freely expressed.”

Australia’s Green Left concluded that in a battle between media tycoons and tech giants the left doesn’t have a dog in the fight. What does the IFJ think?

“In a meeting with our Australian union they described it as a Goliath versus Goliath fight,” Bellanger agrees. “The new monopolies versus the old monopolies. 

“Of course we as a union organisation will fight to save existing jobs, but newsrooms have been hollowed out by media corporations run by hedge funds or multinational corporations for years. 

“The problem with the existing Australia solution is the danger it will end up favouring the big existing players and leave local and smaller media even worse off.”

That could be the case if the law induces big tech companies to restrict news access to firms with which they have negotiated an agreement – which even on a practical level would probably only be the biggest ones. If that meant smaller titles stopped appearing on platforms like Google, the impact on media diversity would be disastrous.

“It depends how you make them pay, how you regulate them,” says Bellanger. “There is a very real danger that the Australia agreement will do just that and that changes to search engines and algorithms will favour those they have the most lucrative deals with. That is why an alternative approach is needed – in the current situation that means making sure Facebook, Google and other platforms pay their taxes and are subject to regulation.

“Why should a small independent magazine pay 20 per cent tax when Facebook pays 2 per cent in the same market?”

When Corbyn was Labour leader and the party was prepared to think big, it talked about addressing the concentration of media ownership, including by government support for local and co-operative news, as well as through a possible publicly owned alternative to Facebook.

“Absolutely. If journalism is to be a public good, it needs public support.

“In the past we would have argued that could be achieved thanks to various measures like subsidised newsprint, public subsidies, public advertising, exemptions from VAT and other measures.

“One interesting part of the debate in Australia is that this idea has resurfaced. If social media has become the digital equivalent of a public forum, does it make sense for it to be privately owned?

“An Australian think tank, the Centre for Responsible Technology, proposed that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation create a publicly funded social network to compete with corporate giants like Facebook and Google. 

“These are ideas we need to explore more, to find ways to ensure that in the future news and information is a right, not just a commodity to be bought and sold.“

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