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Senate journalism inquiry fails to do its job

Facebook and Google have escaped the scrutiny of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Public Interest Journalism, as the final report from the committee recommends lacklustre reforms, from tax deductions for some services and a review of defamation laws, in place of significant change.

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Despite the inquiry initially being established to help combat fake news and help publishers create a sustainable business model to fund quality journalism in the face of aggregators and social media, the committee’s report said the inquiry did not lead to any “definitive conclusions” on the impact of Facebook and Google on the media industry.

The problem of the tech giants will instead be left to the Australian Competition Consumer Commission’s inquiry into the impact of digital platform services.

“The ACCC inquiry has broader terms of reference than this committee, as well as the resources, expertise and time to consider these matters in full,” the report stated.

The ACCC inquiry findings are not due until mid-2019.

The inquiry produced eight recommendations. These include the expansion of tax-deduction status to not-for-profit news organisations that adhere to “appropriate standards of practice for public interest journalism” – a level of government intervention in the editorial process, if ever there was one – a review of defamation laws and the inclusion of media literacy lessons within Australian school curriculums.

The funding of public broadcasting was not part of its remit, but the committee wandered into that territory anyway, recommending the government ensure adequate funding of the ABC and SBS to meet their charters. This is despite well-publicised criticisms of the public broadcasters for overstepping their commissions by offering free digital news services in competition with paid services provided by publishers.

The report repeatedly highlighted the ways Google and Facebook are working to “build the capacity and skills of journalists” and “works with the media sector”, despite the fact that some of the initiatives named are not offered in Australia and are not used by local publishers.

Facebook video monetisation and Instant Articles were two of the initiatives shown to demonstrate the social media site working with media. However, the report failed to highlight the inaccurate and inflated metrics used to calculate video views or the fact that neither of the country’s major publishers, News Corp Australia or Fairfax Media, use the Instant Articles platform.

Fairfax managing director of metro publishing Chris Janz said at the 2017 INFORM News Media Summit: “The kind of revenue that Facebook Instant Articles generates for major news publishers won’t pay half a journalist’s wage for half a week. It’s just not an interesting platform for me, and for Fairfax.”

When the inquiry was first announced in May 2017, then committee member and former leader of NXT Nick Xenophon said the inquiry would tackle the problem of digital giants.

“You simply cannot have a situation where you have Facebook and Google – between them raking $3.2 billion in ad revenue – and piggy-backing and cannibalising the content of Australian journalists and Australian newsrooms,” Mr Xenophon said.

“This goes to the heart of our democracy. If we want the fourth estate to be vibrant and diverse we need to deal with the issues that this inquiry raises, including fake news.”

Instead, the report handed down on Monday focused more on highlighting the achievements of the digital giants rather than the concerns of publishers.

Publishers have long criticised the actions of Facebook and Google, which is often blamed for swallowing revenue from an increasingly smaller pool.

The media industry took matters into its own hands in December 2017, with Fairfax, News Corp and Nine Entertainment announcing a collaboration to share anonymised digital identity to allow the company’s room to compete against the digital platforms’ extensive customer data.

Inquiry supporters vanished from floor

Not only has the inquiry been described as “largely substance-free” by members on the Coalition, the committee’s Liberal senators, James Paterson and Jonathon Duniam, were sceptical of the inquiry’s value.

Certainly the loss of four inquiry members mid-way through the hearings did not help. Deputy Greens leader Scott Ludlam and Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie resigned over dual citizenship, while Mr Xenophon stepped down from federal politics despite being cleared by the High Court.

Committee chair Sam Dastyari was shown the door after he was compromised by his association with Chinese billionaire Huang Xiang, a large donor to the Labor Party.

The final committee included Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young, Labor senator Lisa Singh and aforementioned Liberal senators Patterson and Duniam. Labor’s Catryna Bilyk was the final chair.

They need not have bothered. The report was a total waste of time and resources.

UK to follow Australia’s footsteps

The UK government is set to launch its own inquiry into the media sector this year, assessing how media organisations are adapting to the major role and impact of Facebook and Google on the landscape.

The focus will largely remain on local and regional press, clickbait and the advertising supply chain.

Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Matt Hancock said: “Robust high quality journalism is important for public scrutiny and underpins democratic debate – but as print circulations decline and more readers move online, the press faces an uncertain future.

“This review will look at the sustainability of the national, regional and local press, how content creators are appropriately rewarded for their online creations, and ensure that the UK has a vibrant, independent and plural free press as one of the cornerstones of our public debate.”

It can be only hoped Britain meets with more success with its inquiry than Australia.

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