Digital media regulation: Is what’s going on Down Under set to come over?

Joel Herga, Account Director

Early 2021, in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, all eyes are on Australia. It is not however because of the countries much-admired hotel quarantine system or their hard and fast regional lockdowns but because of a new law that has more to do with regulating cyberspace than track and trace.

On the 24th February, the Australian Government passed a new law requiring digital platforms to pay media outlets and publishers to link their content on news feeds or in search results by entering into negotiated payment deals. The Australian Treasurer (Chancellor) Josh Frydenberg described the law in a tweet as “world-leading”, with politicians across the world rushing to share their views on the new law.

Interestingly, what gives this law its teeth, is that there is a backstop (an all too familiar word for a UK audience) of arbitration via an independent body if two negotiating parties cannot reach an agreement.

Various last-minute amendments were made to the rather lengthily named News Media and Digital Platform Mandatory Bargaining Code which added several concessions to platforms, including requiring the government to give a platform a month’s notice before applying the code and also to consider a platform’s existing commercial deals with publishers.

Nevertheless, this piece of digital media regulation sets out to give publishers more power by forcing platforms to the table. The Australian government has expectations for the law regarding the impact it will have in supporting the news industry, describing it as “helping to sustain public interest journalism in Australia”.

For PR practitioners and all who have an interest in the media industry, the health of news journalism is critical.  A look at the news ecosystem in the UK shows the warning lights are flashing red; change of some kind is needed.

Print sales continue to fall, the UK’s most popular daily newspaper by circulation, the Daily Mail, registered a decrease of 18% in year-on-year circulation figures, bringing its average daily circulation for January 2021 to 960,019. This of course means that revenues have to come from other avenues with online the obvious next place, yet many publishers have struggled to find ways to transition to sustainable business models for a digital age.

There have been previous attempts, in the UK, to try and revitalise the news industry. Recommendation 1 of the Cairncross Review, published in February 2019, called on Government to implement “new codes of conduct to rebalance the relationship between publishers and online platforms”. Interestingly the Government’s response to this review, dated 27th January 2020, cited the work of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in looking at digital media regulation and the impact on journalism.

If the UK government is looking to learn lessons from even more recent events in Australia it might not have to wait long. Included in the fine print of the Australian code was information that it will be reviewed by Government within a year to “ensure it is delivering outcomes that are consistent with the Government’s policy intent”.

However, the Government may even surge ahead without heed to events in Australia. The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has received confirmation from Government that a new Digital Markets Unit, which will oversee a pro-competition regime for digital platforms, will be set up and funded imminently together with a statutory code of conduct to govern digital markets, with the Government confirming that the code will aim to support the sustainability of the news publishing industry and help to, “rebalance the relationship between publishers and online platforms”. This could be an interesting development for storytellers who rely on healthy digital news units to spread their brand or organisations stories.

Any bill that does come before parliament should consider two obvious issues with the Australian code. There appears to be a lack of trickle-down in the negotiations taking place between Australian platforms and publishers. So far most negotiations have seen platforms sign deals with large publishers such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. This despite smaller regional publications crying out for funding. In addition, there is the danger that any digital media regulation addresses the issues of today rather than looking ahead to tomorrow. Legislation that seeks to bolster the news industry solely from redirecting digital ad funds away from platforms may be missing the evolving commercial format of publications many of which are moving away from links on social media to more reliable sources of income, such as subscription-based models.

The above considered, it does appear that the governance of the UK’s digital markets is set for a status update. It may well be that what goes on down under comes over and that isn’t just confined to quarantining in hotel rooms!

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