If smaller and regional publishers don’t get a deal under the news media code, the government retains the “trigger” to force Google and Facebook to the negotiating table, competition tsar Rod Sims says.
The code passed the Senate on Wednesday evening with amendments, a day after the Morrison government struck a deal with Facebook that will see them pay publishers for their news content. The amended legislation will return to the House of Representatives for final approval before it becomes law.
Sims dismissed concerns that the code will not apply to Google and Facebook because of commercial deals done with the major media outlets.
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“I just don’t think it’s going to happen that you’ll get the code not designated while all the smaller players miss out,” the chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission told Guardian Australia.
“Everybody who is eligible will get a deal. Or I suspect Facebook newsfeed will get designated.”
Earlier in the Senate, the government faced questions from Labor, the Greens and independent senator Rex Patrick over the 11th-hour amendments to the legislation as a result of the deal with Facebook to restore Australian news to its platform.
Under the amendments, the government will not make the code apply to a digital platform if the platform can demonstrate that it has made “a significant contribution to the sustainability of the Australian news industry”.
Within hours of the Facebook peace deal, Seven West Media announced it had signed the first Australian commercial arrangement with Facebook.
Google has already signed up at least 50 publications to its Showcase product, including smaller ones such as Crikey, the Saturday Paper, Junkee and the big players Nine Entertainment and News Corp. Guardian Australia has also done a deal with Google.
But concern over the concessions the government made to Facebook remained, and centred around the impact on small publishers of Google and Facebook not being designated.
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Senator Patrick said during debate on the bill: “The minister won’t designate because the deals will have been done with the big guys, and the little guys are going to miss out and the regional guys are going to miss out.”
But Sims said the concern about the amendments was misplaced because designating Google and Facebook ultimately “doesn’t matter” if the media secured good deals with the platforms to fund journalism rather than “take-it-or-leave-it” deals.
“To me it doesn’t matter one jot,” he said. “Not if everybody who is eligible gets a deal.”
Sims also dismissed concerns that the news media code would solely benefit News Corp and Nine, saying Google and Facebook were still “10 times bigger than News Corp globally”.
“If the code was about beefing up the bargaining power of the media, you’d naturally expect companies with more journalists to get more of the money,” he said. “You won’t expect the Guardian to get as much as the ABC. It is proportionate treatment.
“The Murdoch press in Australia, I suspect, they are not as dominant as they used to be,” Sims said on Wednesday after an appearance before the economics committee.
Australians had so much more choice now that there were relatively new players on the market such as Guardian Australia, the New Daily, the New York Times, Junkee and Daily Mail Australia, he said.
“If I want news, I could go to the ABC website, which is every bit as good I would argue in its breadth and depth of coverage as news.com.au or nine.com.au,” he said.
“If you wanted to read the paper in Sydney, you used to have the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph but now you’ve got way more choice.
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“I’m not downplaying the issue of media concentration. I just think people need a bit of perspective here.”
Sims said the purpose of the code was always to give “muscle” to the news businesses so they could get a better deal.
“I was always hoping for commercial deals rather than arbitration,” he said. “If we had deals before we even get them designated that’s faster, that’s even better.
“I just have no problem with whether or not there is designation. I think it’s really important that the code is law and is sitting there as the trigger.”
Having the threat of designation was enough to force the platforms to the bargaining table.
Sims said the code allowed for the smaller players to either collectively bargain or get a blanket deal done that picked up the smaller players.
“My guess is Facebook and Google will do a blanket deal,” he said.
“I have every expectation that the smaller players will get deals as was envisaged under the code. The objective of doing this was two-fold. It was to get commercial deals and have the law in place so there is a continuing pressure for commercial deals rather than take-it-or-leave-it deals.”
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