As the ACCC, Australia’s competition watchdog, prepares to outline how large online platforms Facebook and Google may be compelled to compensate struggling news publishers, BBC’s global news chief tells Campaign Asia-Pacific that there is a lot at stake in the complex negotiations.
“For organisations like us, who have operations and revenues and a number of different territories, this is something that we are paying very close attention to," Jim Egan, CEO of BBC Global News, tells Campaign. “Broadly speaking, we welcome more concerted and carefully considered regulation and assessment of the impact that Facebook and Google in particular have had in recent years on the news industry.”
That impact has been a clear shift in advertising spend, away from direct placement with news publishers and toward the large digital platforms, where news stories are scraped and aggregated as in the case of Google News, or shared and posted, as with Facebook, by the publishers themselves or their audiences.
It is this shift that has emboldened some of the news industry’s most vociferous critics of Google and Facebook’s impact, such News Corp Australasia chief Michael Miller and Nine Entertainment chairman Peter Costello, who have suggested the big platforms ought to pay as much as $600 million to $1 billion in compensation to news media players.
Facebook and Google’s advocates, however, argue that their platforms have helped news publishers distribute content far more widely than publishers could on their own, generating traffic back to publisher sites. Some suggest news publishers need to take more responsibility to adapt their businesses in a digitally changed media landscape.
Egan sees both sides.
“I would say that we don't have the same degree of hostility in our view of Facebook and Google as some of our news peers do,” Egan says. “I don't particularly think it's very useful to be indulging too much in a blame game.”
He adds: “It would be unfair and also a bit immature for news organisations simply to say it's the job of Facebook and Google to save us."
News publishers have a degree of responsibility for figuring out and navigating the commercial landscape they operate in, he says. “Nevertheless, I think the attitude of Facebook and Google until quite recently, frankly, has not exhibited sufficient concern about what's happening to the news landscape,” Egan continues. “And its consequences can be seen in the downstream impact on the level of democratic debate and so on.”
While acknowledging Google and Facebook have been engaging in “sincere catch up” on improving both news industry economics and levels of democratic debate, Egan says it’s due to these persistent concerns that he expects the BBC to participate in ACCC’s groundbreaking work in some form. He also acknowledges creating a new code of conduct between the tech giants and news publishers will be extremely tricky to do.
“This is a global issue, but one, because the way that regulation works, that has to be dealt with on a country by country basis,” Egan says. “And I think they've got a really, really difficult job there because they're having to break new ground in terms of competition economics and regulation where actually part of the problem here about regulating social media is that is that the old tools, both of content and competition regulation, no longer work in this context.”
While settling on agreeable compensation levels would prove to be difficult enough given the precedent they set, the predicament around enforcing Internet regulation may be just as difficult. In reports this week, the ACCC has suggested a collective news industry boycott of Facebook and Google could be an effective way of forcing the tech platforms to pull out their wallets.
It’s on both these legal and economic levels that Egan says the BBC is “extremely interested” in what’s happening in Australia. “The work that the ACCC are doing that is going to be highly, highly significant, not just in the Australian context, but actually in the global context.”