accc digital platforms inquiry
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Media players are battling for control of the sector and their own organisations ahead of the ACCC’s final report on its digital platforms inquiry.

The ACCC published responses to its preliminary report yesterday and though the news organisations that pushed and pushed and pushed for further regulation of digital giants Facebook and Google may get what they asked for, they’re also trying to ensure they don’t get caught up with tighter regulations on themselves in the process. Meanwhile, the digital companies are trying to avoid any further regulations imposed on them.

In its preliminary report, the ACCC proposed a review of current media content regulation, with a view to implementing a uniform framework that would include oversight of the digital platforms. At the moment, The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) regulates broadcasters including the commercial TV and radio networks, community radio and television and the two public broadcasters. It also performs other regulatory functions to do with telecommunications and related infrastructure. So, ACMA says, it is “best placed” to act as the single regulator, should the ACCC recommend one. The office of the eSafety Commissioner has also asked for its role to be boosted to include oversight of the digital platforms.

The Australian Press Council is a voluntary industry body representing newspapers and websites who choose to join — Perth’s only daily newspaper The West Australian left the press council in 2012 and hasn’t been subject to an external complaints body since.

Nine’s takeover of the Fairfax newspapers is just the latest media merger to highlight the problems with the current split system for regulating news content. For example, if a Nine News television story broadcast on the 6pm bulletin was referred to ACMA, it would be subject to the television industry code. But the same video uploaded to nine.com.au or to The Sydney Morning Herald’s website would be subject to the Australian Press Council standards, which are different.

Reviews and reports have been recommending for years that there be a single regulator for all news outlets — something that the newspaper business has strongly argued against. In 2012, the convergence review found the regulatory structures were already outdated and, after a 2011 inquiry, Roy Finkelstein recommended a single regulatory body. More recently, a 2017 review of ACMA also recommended a restructure of Australian media regulation.

But the press council, whose members are newspapers and news websites, has been clear in its view: it wants to maintain the current system for news websites and print products, citing freedom of the press.

“The press council believes that the existing industry self-regulatory arrangements best ensure an independent and free print and online news media sector operating without the threat of government interference or oversight,” it said in its submission.

The press council says its regulation of 900 titles, which include the News Corp papers, Crikey and Daily Mail Australia, maintains a vibrant news media that holds the government and institutions to account.

“The existing industry regulatory arrangements through the press council preserve the independence of the print and online publications but promote the high standards expected of a responsible media sector,” it said.

Last week, the press council ruled that a now-infamous Mark Knight cartoon for The Herald Sun was not racist.

The press council was clear in its submission: it does not want ACMA regulating its members. ACMA’s proposal is that the press council remains in place in a framework that includes self-regulation.

NewsMediaWorks — an industry body that speaks for News Corp, the Nine newspapers and Seven West Media (the publisher of The West Australian) has also told the ACCC it doesn’t want ACMA taking charge of its publications. In its submission, NewsMediaWorks has asked for 100% tax deductibility on subscriptions for all its publications, but said its members shouldn’t be made to sign ACMA codes of practice: “This is not suitable for the functioning of a free press.”

Google and Twitter both argued in their submissions that no further regulation of their platforms was required. Facebook had not yet submitted a response but is also on the offensive, hosting a briefing this week for journalists with the associate global counsel (competition) Samantha Knox, head of global policy development Matt Perault and Australian director of public policy Mia Garlick.

The ACCC is due to hand down its final report in June.

Peter Fray

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