Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2020 - Second Reading

If we need an example of why public interest journalism in this country is so important, that contribution from the member of Hughes illustrates the point. The member for Hughes thinks his Facebook posts are equal to journalism. They're not. The fact is, he is selective. He is selective in what he chooses to post, and Facebook and the other social media giants are not journalism. This is why it is so important that we protect and nurture public interest journalism. Journalism is curated information. It's written by experts who know how to gather and put together facts, and do research and present that to the public. That is what is so important.

That goes to the shadow minister's amendments as part of this bill, the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2020. Labor is supporting this bill. We do have some questions about it. The key reason we're supporting this bill is the incredible contribution that journalism makes to this country. As we've seen with the internet, over the past 30 years it has absolutely demolished the business case for journalism in this country. What we've seen is that the old advertising models have been smashed. Journalism previously survived and thrived, in fact, from private media organisations selling advertisements to companies that then paid the wages of journalists. The journalists provided the service of news which readers wanted to access, and advertisers bought the eyeballs of all the readers who wanted to read that news. The internet's come along and now advertisers don't need news media; they go on to look for jobs or to look for real estate. Those so-called rivers of gold, the classifieds, in the newspapers have just dried up.

The model for funding journalism in Australia has pretty much been demolished. The internet giants have benefited and they continue to benefit. A lot of the searches people make are looking for information. That information is still provided by the traditional news media organisations, but they are getting less and less revenue and less and less profit, while the profits of the internet giants have increased. That's the reason we have this bill before us, which is essentially to give journalists and media companies their fair share.

It's not without limitations. We've made the point, for example, about AAP. There's not quite enough being done there. The government has a lot more to do to support public interest journalism in Australia. This includes support to ensure the ongoing viability of the Australian Associated Press, which of course is the key wholesale provider of news in Australia and has been a critical pillar of media diversity—and I'll get to media diversity a bit later.

Labor emphasises the evidence that the code does nothing to help AAP Newswire and that any notion of trickle-down economics under the code is naive. Labor drew the plight of AAP to the government's attention in March last year, including through Senate estimates. We called on the government to provide COVID relief funding in April last year. In September last year, the announcement of $5 million for AAP was late and inadequate. The benefits to democracy of an independent wholesale newswire business are many. What AAP does is: journalists go around, they get the news and that journalism is then bought by various news companies to go into their papers. It's an effective and efficient way to get news out. We think AAP needs much more support. It used to be funded by the news media companies themselves. That hopefully will continue, but I would make the argument—and I must stress I'm speaking for myself—that AAP needs some pretty direct support.

Data collected by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission shows that, between 2008 and 2018, 106 local and regional newspaper title around Australia closed. That represents a net 15 per cent decrease in the number of these publications. It's left 21 local government areas previously covered by these titles with no coverage at all from any single local newspaper in either print or online formats. So people in those communities, hungry for news, hungry for local news, have no option but to go to social media where perhaps little local sites spring up or, heaven forbid, they might come across the member for Hughes's site and think that's news. That's dangerous for democracy in this country.

The number of contractions in Australia's public interest news landscape has now grown to more than 200. The business case for print journalism has been absolutely smashed. Despite having decades of TV journalism in Australia—and I should declare an interest here: I'm a former print journalist—it is still print journalism that drives the news agenda. It's the print journos who go out there, get the scoops, get the news and come out with the morning paper. The TV news directors for the 6 pm bulletin that evening generally still look at what the major dailies have on the front page, and that will generally lead the news agenda for their evening news. So print journalism, despite the incredible pressures on it, still leads the news agenda in this country.

When we see so many titles closing around the country and some communities having no coverage at all, that's quite dangerous, particularly for democracy, in those local communities. If a local community has no local newspaper, neither online nor in print, that means the local council news is not getting covered. I see my good friend the member for Fremantle sitting over there, the former deputy mayor of the fine Fremantle City Council. If the Fremantle Herald, a fine independent local newspaper, didn't exist, who knows what the Fremantle council would get up to without the oversight of newspapers like the Fremantle Herald?

Local newspapers are incredibly important to democracy and local communities. They cover local sports. They talk about local heroes. When that doesn't happen, councils can get away with things and local people don't learn what's going on in their communities. That leads to a deterioration in local quality of life. I'm hopeful that this code will ameliorate some of that. I am hopeful that the requirement of arbitration for companies generating revenues of more than $150,000 will be useful for local papers, in particular, and, of course, smaller stations. The jury is out on that, but I am hopeful.

One thing that does concern me already, in speaking to local publishers, is how they're fairly unaware of the detail of this. I know we've been waiting for some time to see the detail come before the House, but local publishers don't really know what's available to them under this, so I would exhort the government to—after this passes the parliament, and I'm confident that it will with our support in the Senate—go on an information drive. They can really let the smaller publishers and stations in particular—we know the big guys are looking after themselves and striking the deals—out there in country and regional Australia know more about the detail of the code. They need to know what it means for them and how they can derive revenue from it. I would certainly suggest the government get that information campaign out there, because there's a lot of uncertainty in regional Australia about what this code and the opportunities could be for local media.

I want to briefly come to the submission from Country Press Australia. They put a submission in, in June last year. Quite rightly, it said:

The outcome of this Code is one of the most important media policy decisions affecting democracy in this country ever. The results will likely determine the future of the independent regional and local publishing industry in Australia.

They said:

CPA believes that the mandatory code must consider that balance of power, the economies of scale, the diversity of voice and most importantly the significance of hyper local news and what that means to communities.

…   …   …

If this policy results in large, ongoing financial support to a tiny handful of the biggest, most powerful media companies and does not support independently-owned news/public interest journalism on a scale that ensures its viability it will dramatically increase the concentration of ownership of Australia's news ecosystem into the hands of two or three large companies.

Diverse ownership of news publishing is crucial to our democracy.

I could not agree more. I would hate to think that any code or any further media reform of any sort in this country would allow even more media concentration. The last thing we want is more and more titles and stations ending up in fewer and fewer hands.

The key to a healthy democracy is a diversity of views and a diversity of ownership. It used to be, 30 or 40 or 50 years ago, that local TV stations and local newspapers were owned by a well-known local businessman—maybe the used car salesman or caryard owner or a local mayor. It was somebody who lived in the community and was relatively wealthy. The news reflected those sorts of values. Of course, as those titles got gobbled up by larger and larger corporations, owners of media corporations and companies became millionaires—that is, you had to be a millionaire to own these things. The news reflected their values. And now, of course, to be a significant media owner in this country, you've got to be a billionaire or be part of a consortium of billionaires. More and more, we're seeing the values in journalism reflecting the values and agendas of the owners. It used to be that local journalism once reflected the values of the local owners, so it would reflect the values of the local communities in which they were embedded. Now there is so much media in the hands of a few corporations—they might own supposedly local titles, but they are part of a bigger corporation—that they no longer reflect the values of their local communities. They reflect something other—that is, a bigger agenda. It might be a corporate agenda or a political agenda, but it's not the agenda of the local community.

Diversity is so important. I think we're going to be much better off, as a result of these codes and some of the shakeouts going on. If we can somehow get to more and more local media being owned by more and more local people, whether it's local businesspeople or coalitions of local community associations or well-meaning individuals or philanthropists or whatever, I think that'll be really healthy for our democracy. Some of them will be Liberal-leaning, some will be Labor-leaning and some will be Green-leaning. It doesn't matter which, but if we can get that diversity across our media landscape that is really what is most important, because that's what's important for democracy.

To wrap up, we are backing this code. It's imperfect and it's a very complex area. As I said, if this were just a matter of destructive capitalism—the minister might know what the term is better than me—and if this was just a matter of widgets, new technology replacing the old technology, we wouldn't be here debating this. We would just let technology have its turn. But involved in media is journalism. We're not just talking about advertising, we're not just talking about the making of wheels or something else; we're talking about the role of journalism. Because the old model has been smashed, and journalism has been smashed with it, we need to find a new way to make sure that journalism thrives and continues because it is so important to our democracy.

The code has some critics. Amanda Lotz is a professor of media studies at QUT and just a couple of weeks ago she wrote that she believes:

…the code is unlikely to do much to fix the crisis faced by journalism in the internet age. It isn't even a band-aid on the problem.

The traditional commercial news business model is broken beyond repair. If the government wants to save the social benefit of public-interest journalism, it must look elsewhere.

She goes on to give some statistics about how much revenue has been lost.

There's a lot of work to be done. The code is a beginning. It's certainly not an end. It's one of the recommendations of the ACCC, but there were a whole bunch of other recommendations that the government has failed, so far, to incorporate. Some of those include reviewing privacy laws to give Australians the right to understand and control the way their information is being used, requiring social networks to take more responsibility for misinformation and disinformation. I'll repeat that: one of the ACCC recommendations—and I know the member for Hughes is listening—is to require social networks to take more responsibility for misinformation and disinformation, and to build greater understanding of how big tech is using algorithmic advertising to generate billions in annual revenue. The ACCC has also called for a bunch of other things, which we exhort the government to look into.