Morrison’s media code could be catastrophic for climate and energy news

by | Feb 25, 2021 | Energy & Environment

Climate denial from Rupert Murdoch’s toxic Sky News, Buffy the Vampire Slayer from Junkee. This sort of “news” will be on display on Google News Showcase as a result of the government’s regressive new media laws. It is a travesty for journalism and dangerous to climate and energy transition, writes Giles Parkinson, founder of independent media site Renew Economy.

“News Showcase is a product for public interest journalism, so there may not be a great fit.”

And with that one short email from the Singapore-based head of Google News for the Asia-Pacific region to RenewEconomy management, rejecting our request to even hold discussions with the company, the full catastrophe of what the Coalition government’s new media bargaining code could represent for media diversity in Australia became apparent.

RenewEconomy has spent nearly a decade reporting on climate policies and the clean energy transition, the two dominant themes of the 21st century that have deep economic, environmental and health impacts for everyone. We have held politiciansregulators,  institutions, and the renewables industry to account, and built up a sizeable following in the process – more than 20 million page views across its publications in 2020.

If this is not public interest journalism, what is?

Google is making those decisions and among those chosen for its new Google Showcase, and to get paid to be there, is the youth-focused website Junkee. Its lead story on Wednesday?

“Was Joss Whedon the real big bad of “Buffy”?”

Its No. 2 story?

“We reckon we’ve worked out who cheats on MAFS this season.

Also on Google Showcase, and reportedly getting paid millions by Google to feature on its “public interest” news platform, is News Corp and its toxic Sky News Australia, the source of the kind of lies and misinformation that RenewEconomy has been debunking for years.

It seemed no coincidence that last week, as Ketan Joshi has reported, the top rating story on Google for “solar news” was this piece of invention from Sky News Australia, falsely claiming the failure of German renewables during a cold winter front. It was a story that contained not a shred of evidence. It sat on the top of the Google search for solar news for four days.

Is this the future of journalism in Australia? We hope not, but it doesn’t bode well. But let’s recall how we got here.

The Coalition government announced some time ago its plans for its “Media Bargaining Code”, apparently under pressure from News Corp.

‘Stolen content’ claim simply nonsensical

News, and other big media players – Seven, Nine and the Guardian among them – claimed that their content was being “stolen” by internet giants Google and Facebook, and they demanded that the government introduce a law that required them to be paid for their journalism.

This claim is nonsense, as the likes of Crikey have pointed out. If the big media companies didn’t want links to their stories to appear on Facebook, they could have removed the pages they have built on that platform. If they didn’t want their stories to be found on Google, a simple line of code – a few minutes work – would have done the trick.

But no, as Crikey has noted, this is effectively a shakedown of “big tech” by “big media” under the cover of supporting public interest journalism. Or “hush money” as Michael West Media describes it. It appears mostly designed by big media to line their own pockets and protect their prime positions in the media landscape.

Laughing Stock: Australia’s new media code rivals our climate policy for absurdity

And what was once claimed to be a fillip to media diversity has turned – predictably and disturbingly – into the opposite. Google will choose who it wants to be on Showcase. Facebook says it is creating a similar platform, but has made clear it will only “support the publishers we choose to”.

Who defines the public interest?

On what criteria are these decisions being made? Who defines the public interest? What happens to the smaller publishers that are not the chosen ones? Does Showcase and Facebook News now mean that those publications paid by Google and Facebook will get priority over others?

Will the social media reach and readership of websites such as RenewEconomy be diminished because of this? Will our content now be harder to find? Will Google and Facebook still be required to make payments for links for all media? Neither company seems to think so, and Facebook’s statement makes it clear it won’t, it will just sign up enough to please the Treasurer.

But, again, we ask: under what criteria?

We don’t know the answer to any of these questions. Nobody seems to know. And the ability of Facebook and Google to recognise and understand public interest journalism – fundamental, it would seem, to the new code, is questionable.

After Ketan Joshi wrote about the Sky News post, and how it was promoted by Google, he found a way to link to the story from Facebook. But his take-down of the Sky News nonsense, and Google’s role in promoting it, was quickly branded as “false information”.

(This was likely done by a machine that recognised a fake image published by Sky News that Joshi had used to highlight the fake news. The link provided by Facebook explaining why Joshi’s post had been labelled “false information” went to an AFR “fact check” that actually supported his story. But the damage was done).

So, if neither Google nor Facebook can recognise what public interest journalism is, or what is true or false information, then how can this code be claimed to protect it?

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Communications Minister Paul Fletcher crowed on Thursday – after the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code passed through parliament – that it would “sustain public interest journalism”. They were pleased that deals had been struck by Google and Facebook with their chosen media companies.

“Our commitment to legislating the Code reflects the importance of a diverse and well-resourced news media sector to our democracy and the Australian people,” the said.

There is a strong case to support public interest journalism in Australia, but this is not the way to do it.

The worst possible deal

As Chris Warren, formerly the head of the media union, wrote in Crikey: “Australia has ended up with the worst possible deal — one that strengthens both old media and big tech monopolies, particularly their most socially malign elements in News Corp and Facebook.”

This could prove to be a disaster for public interest journalism in Australia, and may lead to the perverse outcome of protecting big media, rather than leaving it open to more competition.

As Crikey notes, it could have a devastating impact on smaller publications. Even the media union, the MEEA, has finally woken up to this possibility and the implications of media being left at the mercy of Facebook and Google as they seek to avoid mandatory regulation and choose which media companies they come to agreements with.

“This will particularly affect small publishers if the Treasurer deems that Google and Facebook have done enough not to be named as respondents to the News Media Mandatory Code,” the MEEA said.

“For small publishers who fail to make side deals with the tech giants, they could be locked out, further entrenching the narrow ownership base of the Australian media market.”

A government like Morrison’s could hardly have wished for a better outcome. The core of their supplicant media is to receive millions to continue on their cheering from the sidelines, independent voices such as RenewEconomy risk being squeezed by the nature of these secret deals and decisions, even as big media companies and the competition regulator claim this to be some sort of victory for media diversity and the democratic process.

It risks being nothing of the sort. As it stands, it’s astonishing, it’s dangerous, and it’s demoralising. From where we sit, it’s bad for climate and it’s bad for the clean energy transition – the great challenges of our time. And it’s bad for democracy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Giles Parkinson

Giles Parkinson

Giles Parkinson is founder and editor of RenewEconomy.com.au, and is also the founder of OneStepOffTheGrid.com.au and founder/editor of www.TheDriven.io. Giles has been a journalist for 35 years and is a former business and deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review.

11 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Thank you for this article, just highlighting how Murdoch once again is wielding a big stick to take control. The youth with inquisitive minds , our future of this country will not rely on main stream media, they are awake up to this crap. I fear for those who rely on the outcome of MAFS as news, but I pray that independent media find a way to keep the wheel turning, find a platform to keep their voices heard. Murdoch is loosing his grip, he can’t control the new young minds, thank god.

  2. Avatar

    Passed with support of the Greens and Labor? Cash for Sky and Nine! Sen. Lambie speaking sense.

    Strange days indeed!

    • Avatar

      Yes, and I’m really, really pissed with Dan Andrews as well when it comes to anything in the natural environment that seems to be up for grabs with this bloke, forest tree logging where endangered species live (it’s actually Victoria’s emblem), rabid shooting of ducks and kangaroo’s for fun, gold mining in forests, logging just for the hell of it to appease the CFMMEU!

  3. Avatar

    Thank you for your article Giles, and serves to highlight the obvious where Murdoch’s Climate denial continues to wreak havoc.

    https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077?

    The media code is just another fake debate to uphold a propaganda machine that suits the LNP/BCA/IPA’s agenda, not unlike the fake debate that’s been thrown around regarding that disgusting Jobseeker decision. Read it and understand the total lack of conscience, let alone any humanity:
    https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/feb/26/canberra-on-a-big-budget-how-jobseeker-stacks-up-against-a-federal-politicians-perks

  4. Avatar

    Did anyone actually expect the Liberal Party to make any effort to promote public interest journalism? Or any other kind of public interest?

    Propaganda, dishonesty and scare campaigns win elections.

  5. Avatar

    The Rupert tax is a disaster for tech investment and media diversity in Australia. I simply can’t understand why the government would intervene in this way. Surely it can’t just be about getting good media coverage for the next election?

  6. Avatar

    Can I ask for a clarification? Is it the case that ordinary Google continues as it was, with News Corp &c fake news being promoted only on the Google Showcase. If the Google Showcase is a subscription service surely only a few people will ever use it?

    • Avatar

      Thinking similar, there is the free news.google.com aggregator for every langauges and/or nation, but why would anyone feel compelled to use Google Showcase? Not just unclear on exactly what analysis this new code is based on or why, but to me it looks like Google being seen to do something…. whether that benefits the larger media outlets is yet to be seen; it’s the latter legacy media under threat due to their avoidance of and/or attempts to manage disruption through ‘owned’ govt.

  7. Avatar

    What benefit will Michael west receive or is he ashamed to tell .Is the obessession about Murdoch an ageing US citizen clouding his judgemnt perhaps Kevin and Malcolm will provide funds ?

  8. Avatar

    The media strategy round climate practised by News Corp et al., LNP and broad fossil fuel sector is not so much denial now but grudgingly accepting the facts with much scepticism, i.e. delays and time wasting on robust environmental regulation including carbon emissions; this strategy has been analysed in depth by DeSmog (Canada/UK) and related US media (recently comparisons made with same talking points and blame on renewable sources made regarding the Texas grid collapse, like SA blackout some years ago).

    On the promotion of climate science and environmental policy, legacy media make it difficult or simply ignore such issues, often countered with narratives round ‘population growth’ etc. to maintain the status quo.

    However, RenewEconomy and any other small medium media outlet or online presence, could now evaluate their digital visibility locally and globally, using SEO techniques for inbound marketing i.e. being found in the trusted organic web search results (vs. paid/sponsored); in house for ongoing strategy and skills (vs. outsourcing to SEO agency) or relying upon paid ads.

    Any good digital strategy for targeted visibility requires not just quality content which Renew does, but also connected up and using different social media networks to promote your shop front i.e. webpage, for robots to index, plus mixing analogue by doing cross posting of articles with similar sites and cooperating with the latter sites on reciprocal links too (e.g. on ‘Governments & Companies’ page including a text description for each if reciprocated); one assumes Google Analytics is installed for all to see sources and types of traffic (not just IT team or management).

    Can take months for ‘results’ to be seen but once front loaded it becomes routine with less time needed for maintenance e.g. simply posting similar content linked to an article. The results can be seen by Google Analytics and test searches with various combinations of keywords.

    Digital is not that technical, but falsely deemed to be by many; it is more about words, linguistics and audience behaviour.

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