Inquiry backs world-first news media code

·3-min read

Australia's world-leading push to force tech giants Google and Facebook to pay for news has received the green light from a Senate committee, paving the way for laws to pass as early as Tuesday.

The bill is listed to be debated in the upper house next week with the coalition keen to forge ahead with the plan despite pressure from tech giants.

The multi-party committee report recommended the bill be passed without amendment, but noted there were risks.

"The committee accepts that there remains the possibility that not all risks have been taken into account, and that further refinement may be needed to the arbitration mechanism and other parts of the code so that they work in an optimum manner," it said.

"Accordingly, the committee strongly supports the 12-month review mechanism built into the legislation."

Despite the concerns raised by various submitters and witnesses, the committee said it was "confident that the bill will deliver on its intended outcomes".

"Its provisions will provide the basis for a more equitable relationship between the media and Google/Facebook and, through this, help safeguard public interest journalism in Australia. Accordingly, the committee recommends that the bill be passed."

Welcoming the report, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the laws would create a framework for the parties to reach commercial arrangements, so that news media business are fairly paid for the content they generate and which digital platforms benefit from.

"The government expects all parties to continue to work constructively towards reaching commercial agreements in the spirit of collaboration and good faith encouraged by the code," he said in a statement.

Labor senators noted in additional comments the government should do more to back public interest journalism including support for the Australian Associated Press newswire "as the key wholesale provider of news in Australia and a critical pillar of media diversity".

"The government's September 2020 announcement of $5 million for AAP was late and inadequate," the senators said.

"The benefits to democracy of an independent wholesale newswire business are many and we urge the government to make appropriate provision for AAP as a matter of priority."

The Greens also called for support for AAP, as well as an amendment to require news organisations to spend the revenue on public interest journalism.

They also want a review after 12 months of the code and its impact on small, independent and start-up publications and journalist job numbers.

During the inquiry, Google made the extraordinary threat to pull out of Australia if the laws were passed.

The Morrison government refused to scrap the laws and raised the prospect of Microsoft's Bing search engine filling a gaping market hole.

But relations between the government and Google appear to have thawed slightly after the search giant's global boss met with the prime minister and treasurer.

After the virtual meeting with Scott Morrison and Mr Frydenberg, Google launched its "news showcase" product that allows users to read content that is often behind paywalls.

The $1.3 billion initiative pays publishers for their editorial judgment to curate news for Google services.