Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

The long history of media policy in Australia is of governments looking after the big media proprietors at the expense of Australians. And the passage of the “news media bargaining code” this week is another iteration of that history. In fact, it’s up there with the greatest rorts ever perpetrated by Australia’s media companies.

New media technologies have always been the bane of media proprietors. Radio and then television disrupted newspapers. Subscription TV disrupted television. Digital transmission disrupted both. The internet, of course, disrupted everything.

And at every stage, media incumbents convinced politicians to allow them to control or restrict competition. Newspaper owners were allowed to snap up radio licences and then television licences. Subscription TV wasn’t allowed for decades and then heavily restricted. Digital broadcasting was heavily restricted, with incumbent broadcasters gifted vast amounts of free spectrum. Briefly, the Howard government even proposed to regulate the internet as a broadcasting service.

At no stage were the interests of audiences even remotely a factor in policy deliberations. The only role that audiences or the public interest played in those deliberations was that politicians and bureaucrats had to invent absurd justifications to pretend that the restrictions would benefit consumers. Thus, for example, the risible fantasy of “datacasting”, now long forgotten, once the centrepiece of new media policy.

I should know. I worked on media policy and watched, and helped devise, such justifications.

The only communications minister to try to address the public interest was Stephen Conroy and his ill-fated media regulatory changes in 2013, which dared to require newspapers to live up to their claims of self-regulation and established a public interest test for mergers. The only politician to successfully secure a public interest outcome is Nick Xenophon, who forced the government to cough up for a regional and small publishers content fund in 2017. The effort utterly exhausted him.

Then Google and Facebook came along and, while not offering media content at all, wrecked the analog-era advertising model relied on by traditional media. Media companies themselves had already managed the same result for real estate advertising, which now sat on their books as separate, highly profitable companies that made investors wonder why on earth they were still attached to loss-making media businesses.

Traditionally the media industry has been riven by conflict. For two decades, the incumbent free-to-air broadcasters bitterly fought efforts by News Corp to offer a successful pay TV service. Sometimes the TV owners squabbled among themselves. But Josh Frydenberg’s extortion of Google and Facebook, based on the debunked lie of “content theft”, had the full-throated support of every mainstream media company — even recent arrival Guardian Australia. But then that’s unsurprising, given the role News Corp and Nine actually played in drafting it.

Once again, the interests of consumers were completely ignored. Indeed, what is unusual about Frydenberg’s news media bargaining code is that, rather than offer absurd justifications about public benefit, it explicitly has nothing to do with public interest journalism, or journalism full stop. “There is no requirement that the content be produced by a journalist,” the explanatory memorandum makes clear in defining what content is covered by the code, reflecting the wishes of News Corp and Nine.

And there is no requirement that a single cent of the money secured from tech companies be directed toward journalism by News Corp, Nine, Seven, Guardian Australia or any other big media beneficiaries.

Such a requirement would have been trivially easy to add to the bargaining code legislation. During the media ownership changes by the Howard government in 2006, I spent considerable time crafting local news, presence and content requirements for regional broadcasters for then communications minister Helen Coonan so that the Nationals could claim to be looking after the bush. Legislating content and resource requirements on media companies is clunky, but it can be done.

But you can guess how media companies would feel about any diktat from the government about how they spend the tens of millions (though not the forecast billions) they will obtain from the tech giants.

The ultimate effect is to entrench the power of a small group of mainstream media companies while small and regional companies continue to struggle.

And as the media companies have gone, so have their editors, producers and journalists, who have fallen into line to support the code, attack the tech giants and misrepresent the whole racket as in the public interest. There’s been virtually no dissent in the mainstream media. In previous decades, when there were divisions in the media, at least some voices would be raised in criticism. News Corp gave John Howard, or “Mr Wishy Washy” as they labelled him, an absolute flogging for caving into the Packers on digital television.

But this time around, with mainstream media unanimity, there’s been no criticism, only journalists lining up to mislead their audiences and readers.

Strange that they should wonder why commercial media isn’t trusted and their readerships and viewerships have been in such catastrophic decline.

Bernard Keane worked on media policy in the Department of Communications from 2000-08.

Private Media, the publisher of Crikey, receives funds from Google and Facebook as part of licensing arrangements.

Peter Fray

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