I love The Guardian. It has long been my most trusted news source worldwide. I have been honoured to write for and work with this grand institution. So I am sorely disappointed that it’s dancing with the devil, Rupert Murdoch, in backing Australia’s news media bargaining code.
The code is built on a series of fallacies. First is the idea that Google and Facebook should owe publishers so much as a farthing for linking to their content, sending them audience, giving them marketing. In any rational market, publishers would owe platforms for this free marketing, except that Google at its founding decided not to sell links outside of advertisements. The headlines and snippets the platforms quote are necessary to link to them, and if the publishers don’t want to be included, it is easy for them to opt out.
Second, the major media companies of Australia — Murdoch’s News Corp, Nine and, yes, The Guardian — are not beggars in Oliver Twist’s poor house as they would have us believe. They will survive.
Third, no matter what happens in this political drama, Murdoch — as ever — wins. Either he gets paid by Google and Facebook, or, as threatened, Facebook bans news from its newsfeed and Google pulls out of Australia. Since Murdoch and Nine own almost all the biggest media brands in the nation, they’ll be fine. Any media start-up that dreams of competing with Australia’s media oligopoly will be unable to find a hold in the market. Small companies in many sectors will suffer. Users will suffer.
I predict that the politicians who made this happen at Murdoch’s behest will suffer once citizens realise what they must do without. But Murdoch won’t.
What worries me most is what the code would do to the internet, worldwide. As The Guardian reported, Sir Tim Berners-Lee himself, the man who invented the web, said the code would break it. The precedent of having to pay for the privilege of linking to someone is antithetical to the core ethic of the web: that the edges finally win over the power at the centre.
In the United States, where I work, it is only because of the web and its architecture of the link — as well as social media and its hashtags — that we have finally heard the stories of #BlackLivesMatter and #LivingWhileBlack and #MeToo from voices too long excluded from mass media, run by old, white men (who look like me). The net challenges the old mens’ hegemony.
No wonder Murdoch does everything he can to cripple the internet and its proprietors, cashing in his political capital — conflict of interest be damned — to buy protectionist legislation favouring his companies against his competitors.
In beginning to pay publishers for their articles, Google and Facebook are playing into his hand — and I’m unhappy with them, too, for setting a precedent I consider dangerous for the future of the net.
You may ask why I’m so vitriolic about your native son, Australia. (In disclosure, I once worked for Murdoch as TV critic for America’s TV Guide. Also, the school where I teach has raised funds from Facebook and Google, but I receive nothing from them.)
My animus toward Murdoch comes from seeing his media company damage my family and my nation. Fox News brainwashed parents across the country. Donald Trump was the Frankenstein’s monster of Murdoch’s network. The January 6 riot at the US Capitol might as well have been Murdoch’s garden party.
Rupert Murdoch is the single most malign influence in democracy across the English-speaking world — and his influence spreads even wider now, as even formerly sensible Canada and the European Union are considering following Australia’s lead in killing the web with carbon copies of the code.
If Murdoch is the devil, The Guardian was the guardian angel come to battle him. That’s why I’m so disappointed. I’m equally concerned that The Guardian, as well as most news media lately, have turned dystopian in their coverage of the internet and technology. I am old enough to remember when they were optimistic, even utopian. But that is a discussion for another day, another beer.
I say this at the risk of my relationship with The Guardian, an affection that goes back many years. But as much as I love The Guardian, I love the internet even more.
Jeff Jarvis is professor of journalism at the City University of New York.
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