JIM CHALMERS MP
MEMBER FOR RANKIN
MICHELLE ROWLAND MP
SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS
MEMBER FOR GREENWAY
PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA
TUESDAY, 8 DECEMBER 2020
SUBJECT: News media code.
JIM CHALMERS, SHADOW TREASURER: Michelle and I are here to speak briefly with you today about the news media code, responding to the Treasurer and the Communications Minister from a short time ago. When it comes to this news media code, the Government has been dithering, delaying, and stuffing around for a year now. It was this time last year that the Government said they would act to level the playing field between the tech platforms and the news media organisations. By April they were saying it would be finished by July. By July they were saying they'd be finished soon. And last month, Josh Frydenberg said it would all be done and dusted by this month. None of those things turned out to be true. This is another stunning example of a Government that chases headlines but just doesn't deliver. Time and time again we've heard from the Treasurer, in particular, big promises and big announcements about finalising this deal and getting it legislated before the end of the year. Yet we still haven't even seen the legislation that the ministers were talking about a short time ago. This has been on the table for a year and still we haven't seen the legislation.
On our side, Michelle and I and the whole Labor team have said that we are prepared to support, in principle, efforts to ensure that the playing field is levelled between the tech platforms and the news media organisations. We do want to see quality journalism properly paid for in this country. We do want to make sure that regulation keeps up with technological change in this really sensitive and really important part of our economy. But all of this uncertainty that's been created by the big announcements and no delivery has been difficult for business. It's been a difficult enough time for business as it is without all of the regulatory uncertainty which has been created by Government which makes announcement after announcement, and then can't even deliver the legislation on the Tuesday of the last week of the Parliament.
We'll hear from Michelle in a moment, but we've said repeatedly that we are prepared to engage constructively. We do support efforts to get this important area of policy right. If the Government genuinely wanted an outcome rather than another announcement they would have engaged with us by now. We've indicated our willingness to be constructive. The Government has only shown again and again and again that they're all about the announcement but they have difficulty when it comes to delivery.
MICHELLE ROWLAND MP, SHADOW MINISTER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Labor has long recognised the conclusions of the ACCC’s Digital Platforms Inquiry: that the market power of the platforms is impacting on Australia’s media sector. We have long recognised the importance of intervention to overcome that and create a level playing field. So, whilst we have not seen the legislation and have not been briefed on it, I can articulate some of the parameters we will be applying when we do see the detail and assess the legislation on its merits.
The first is the inherent value of news media. Not all content is created equal, so it is important that journalism is properly recompensed and recognised for the unique characteristics that it holds. Secondly, we need to ensure outcomes. We need to ensure that public interest news journalism is supported in Australia and can continue to be delivered, particularly in regional areas where we have whole news deserts emerging. Third is the impact on consumers. It is going on around 50 per cent of consumers now accessing their online news through the digital platforms, so clearly there is a reliance by consumers on that form of technology.
So, the key question here is: has the Government delivered a workable code? We have seen reports that this will be referred to a Senate Committee and we will work through that process to find out whether this is a workable code, and if not, why not.
JOURNALIST: The Treasurer didn’t really confirm in his press conference whether the media companies had said they weren’t going to pull Australian content from their platforms. Do you think they are still going to do that? Is that threat still valid and what will you say if they do that?
ROWLAND: There’s a few things there. The first is that Facebook and Google have indicated that there are certain red lines that needed to be satisfied if they were going to stay in Australia. We just don’t know what is in this code and whether or not they have been satisfied by that. But let’s face it: it would be a detrimental thing for Australian consumers to lose this form of innovation, this technology – particularly as I said, Australians are accessing their online news through these platforms. So again, we will just have to wait and see when the code is tabled tomorrow and the reactions of the platforms to that.
JOURNALIST: Are you concerned that we are kind of on a ledge here, being the world first to do this thing, particularly in relation to Facebook and Google?
ROWLAND: Well, one aspect of that is that this is being examined globally. It is a global issue. In the UK, they have been undertaking very long inquiries into this. Let’s face it too, this is actually not that novel in Australia, in terms of a negotiate-arbitrate model. That has long been the case in the telco sector for example. It’s not exactly a ground-breaking proposition per se. But certainly, the rest of the world is watching, and the platforms are watching internationally as well, and hence those price and non-price terms are important to them. In some cases, it’s the non-price terms that seem to be the sticking point: the process of arbitration, and the notification of changes to algorithms. Again, we’re just going to have to wait and see the legislation before we know those details and the reactions of the platforms.
JOURNALIST: Are you concerned by the inclusion of a two-way value exchange so that Google and Facebook would be able to take to the negotiating table the number of referral traffic which they send to media companies? Will including that undermine the potential of media companies to secure sizeable payment under this process?
ROWLAND: Well firstly, because I haven’t seen the legislation, I don’t know what precisely the value exchange looks like. The platforms did make it very clear from the outset that there needed to be some recognition of the value exchange - whether that’s in the form of data or transfers of eyeballs. So, whether or not that has been executed to the satisfaction of the media companies and the platforms is one that we are yet to realise.
JOURNALIST: Michelle, you spent many years advising technology and media companies in your previous life before politics. Do you think that Google and Facebook threats to withdraw were serious or more empty threats that they were never really going to carry out?
ROWLAND: I think it would be a mistake to have dismissed them straight out. These are international organisations and when you look at the consequences of what happened in other jurisdictions – in Spain for example – some of the results were actually not that detrimental. You had more traffic going into domestic news sites for example. I think it would have been foolish to simply dismiss them and at this stage, we still don’t know whether the platforms are satisfied with the final terms of the Bill. Given the reliance, especially since everyone is a digital native now when it comes to the platforms, it would be foolish not to take those seriously and not to engage.
JOURNALIST: Jim, are there any concerns in Labor ranks that the Government's tried to do the media companies a solid to get favourable media coverage going forward?
CHALMERS: I've made comments on this before which is why you're asking me. I stand by my view that Josh Frydenberg places a higher premium on getting good headlines for himself than getting a good outcome in the economy, including in this sector. My view on that hasn't changed. As I said at the outset, we've seen announcement after announcement in this space, we've seen deadline missed after deadline missed. The point I would make, and Michelle has made this point more eloquently than I, is that we do recognise the need for there to be reform in this area. We've been supportive, in principle, of levelling the playing field between the tech platforms and the media organisations. We have asked and sought briefings in the past on the negotiations so that we may play a more constructive role. If the Government wanted a good outcome they would have taken up our offer. As it stands now, we still haven't seen the legislation. At this point we're expecting to see it tomorrow. It has no chance of passing the parliament this year and being all finished like Josh Frydenberg announced that it would be. In the interim, a lot of businesses, not just in the media sector, have pointed out that this kind of regulatory uncertainty makes life even more difficult when things are already difficult enough.
JOURNALIST: When you say it's impossible for it to get through this year, does that mean that Labor would oppose it being rammed through in the next couple days?
CHALMERS: As I understand it, it will be introduced tomorrow. Unless our understanding of that has changed very recently, it's not one of those bills that the Government is seeking to fast track as far as I know. There is an expectation that it will go to a Senate committee. There's an expectation on all sides that that will happen. The Government themselves said in their press conference half an hour or so ago that they intend to pass this next year. That means that yet another deadline has been missed.
Thanks very much everyone.