Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai (Image: AP/Virginia Mayo)

A quick perusal of the press over the last 24 hours gives a pretty good idea of where the mainstream media stand in relation to the government’s bill to rip billions out of Google and Facebook to hand to Australia’s big media companies.

“New media code will level playing field with Google and Facebook,” writes the managing director of Guardian Australia for Nine.

A Nine journalist explained, in discussing a conversation between Scott Morrison and Alphabet/Google CEO Sundar Pichai (an account of which was given by Morrison to journalists) that Morrison should “stand his ground… a sovereign nation should not be seen to be dictated to by any company”.

A News Corp journalist claimed Google was about to back down on its threat to cut off search services to Australia.

“Why I replaced Google search with Bing,” says another News Corp journalist, just for good measure.

All that’s of a piece with coverage over the last couple of weeks — the ready enthusiasm for Microsoft’s suggestion that Bing replace Google in Australia (“How I dumped Google before it dumped me“), attacks on Google in the wake of its cut-off threat (“Chairman Mao ‘would have approved’“, “Ominous warning over Google power“) and sundry other cheerleading (“Media code is thoughtful, brave and might save journalism“, “No backing down: Treasurer unconvinced by Zuckerberg“, “Google this: small business resents giant’s bully-boy tactics“).

And that’s before the ponderous editorials (“Google is acting the bully“, “Consumers first in Google probe“, “No news is bad news for Big Tech“)

On and on it goes, a one-note rant against Google and Facebook in which the “journalism” is indistinguishable from the editorials. News Corp is the most febrile, understandably, given it manufactured the lie (debunked by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) that Google steals content, and drafted the government’s proposal itself.

Contrary views are rare as hen’s teeth. The Financial Review at least ran an excellent column by Richard Holden demolishing the code proposal.

Even rarer are acknowledgements by Nine and News Corp that they will be the principle beneficiaries of the heist, with both companies having indicated they expect to get hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, from the scheme.

It amounts to a systematic misleading of audiences by the country’s two most powerful media companies, over a key policy issue, because they are entirely conflicted. The journalists churning out the articles are just as culpable as the op-ed writers and editors.

What they’re hoping is that their audiences will nod along to the idea of taking money off big tech, universally (and correctly) seen as manifestations of corporate evil, and not worry too much about where it ends up.

News Corp and Nine, of course, want it to end up on their balance sheets, which is why they’ve pushed the lie that somehow Google owes them something for stolen content.

But if this is about supporting public interest journalism, because big tech’s model of micro-targeted ad-serving is superior to the analog model of exposing as many eyeballs as possible to the same ad and has removed the need for advertisers to rely on old media, well, that’s a wretched idea.

There’s no guarantee that News Corp and Nine will direct any of the revenue into journalism. For that matter, Paul Kelly has admitted News Corp is in the business of supporting the Coalition, not journalism*. Its Sky News service is a platform for extremism and conspiracy theories. Nine is an entertainment company that has a legacy journalism business attached as a small and inconvenient rump.

If the goal is to support public interest journalism, any money obtained from Google and Facebook should be directed straight to public interest journalism via existing mechanisms such as the Public Interest News Gathering Program. Nine and News could apply for a grant like everyone else through that or a similar program expanded with additional funding.

That would be the best outcome for consumers. But Australian media policy has always been run in the interests of media companies at the expense of consumers. That’s exactly what’s happening with this policy — but don’t expect the media to point that out.

*The original form of this article stated that News Corp has admitted it supports the Coalition. A News Corp representative called to say the company had never admitted that. We accept that and have amended the article. As Crikey notes above, Paul Kelly, Editor-At-Large of The Australian, stated on November 25 2020, “Rudd complains about News Corp supporting Coalition governments. But this is merely the working rule of established media. Centre-right newspapers back centre-right parties and centre-left newspapers papers back centre-left parties.” The News Corp person also said it was incorrect to say the company had admitted that Sky News is a platform for conspiracies and extremism. We have amended the article.

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