Last week was Journalism Matters Week – a timely reminder that independent, trusted news sources are crucial to a thriving democracy. But we need to make sure that journalists, producers and publishers get properly paid for their work if we don’t want to see more outlets fold up - and this means standing up to the big social media platforms.
A report commissioned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport into press sector dynamics was published last week. It showed a positive correlation between local newspaper circulation and electoral turnout. In other words, more local press means more voters at the polls. Our nation’s free press, as a gaggle of misguided protesters seemed to forget – or wilfully ignore – earlier this month, is the historic cornerstone of our democracy. And in times of information overload, such as we’ve been experiencing throughout the pandemic, we should cherish it more than ever.
Yet, sadly, it is at risk – and not just from those who might try to target printing presses. Less visible, but more systemic and insidious, is the threat to publishers from the market dominance of digital platforms. In July, the Competition and Markets Authority published its study of Online Platforms and Digital Advertising, with the stark warning that Google and Facebook’s domination of digital adland ‘undermines the ability of newspapers and others to produce valuable content, to the detriment of broader society’.
How? Newspapers depend on adverts to keep going. The undeniable trend is that brands and advertisers are investing less in print, and more in digital ads; so newspapers have to rely more and more on being able to sell digital ad-space, as well as on the website traffic generated by their content being seen on social media platforms. The CMA found that Google and Facebook dominate 80 per cent of that market.
This, on its own, could be natural; big players always emerge in competitive markets. But it’s when the market isn’t competitive, with no real chance for any challengers, that the consumer suffers. The CMA clearly stated that Google and Facebook’s practices, for example offering to target individuals with ads based on their user-data at a level of precision that traditional newspapers and smaller platforms just don’t have access to, shows both a lack of transparency and a barrier to entry to the market. This is anathema to a liberal, free market economy.
The powerful Antitrust Subcommittee in the US House of Representatives have been busy looking into this too. In a world-first back in July, Congressman David Cicillinne and his colleagues heard from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai, each defending their company against concerns that they’ve developed anti-competitive monopolies.
Last week the Subcommittee published its final report, outlining that it’s precisely the tech giants’ market dominance that has led to such shoddy data privacy practices, that I, and many other parliamentarians, have been so worried about. It too sounds the alarm that platform market dominance is ‘undermining the availability of high-quality sources of journalism’.
However, it’s on the other side of the world that a solution may be in sight. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, having reached similar conclusions to the CMA in the UK and the US Antitrust Subcommittee, drafted a code that would force platforms to have to pay news publishers for using their content.
The reasoning is that, as a journalist, if your article appears on Facebook or Google, it’s only fair that you get part of the ad-revenue the tech giants accumulate thanks to users being interested in your work enough to stay on the platform. I agree; after all, getting news is one of the main reasons people use social media.
Funnily enough, Facebook and Google have both responded by threatening to remove all news from their platforms if Australia goes ahead, demonstrating just how much they value a free press. For what it’s worth, in my years of holding platforms to account for enabling disinformation, they always say something is technically and economically impossible, until it suddenly isn’t. I hope that Australia pushes on, regardless of the tech giants’ bullying; and that following the CMA’s report, the UK Government establishes a similar code of conduct. We must uphold our reputation as a champion of the free press – at home as much as abroad.