Facebook’s flip, the Media Bargaining Code and where student publications go from here

Our Editor, Helen Karakulak, explains the relationship between the Facebook ban and Media Bargaining Code, concerns surrounding the two and the impact this has on student-run publications, followed by a statement from On The Record. (Image source: Natalie Chow, On The Record)

By Helen Karakulak | @helen_karakulak

Facebook has now restored the news pages blocked from their platform on Thursday February 18 after reaching a compromise with the Australian government.

However, there is still uncertainty surrounding the continuous use of the platform and how new negotiations between Facebook and Australian media may disproportionally affect smaller publishers.

The ban was initially carried out as Facebook’s response to the proposed Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2021, more commonly referred to as the Media Bargaining Code.

The Media Bargaining Code is seen as highly contentious, being the first of its kind to address bargaining power imbalances between news outlets and digital media platforms, specifically addressing Facebook News Feed and Google Search.

Essentially, the Bill establishes a mandatory code of conduct applying to media businesses and digital platform corporations. News media organisations that meet the code’s conditions can sign up to be paid for their content that appears on search engines or social media.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg then assesses whether these digital platforms hold a significant power imbalance over publishers and may insist the platform negotiate with news businesses through mediation regarding how much they should pay for content. If the platform and the media company fail to come to an agreement, an arbitrator will make the decision.

In its introduction to Parliament on December 9 2020, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg described the Bill as a, ‘historic reform’ claiming its impact would, ‘ensure a sustainable and viable Australian media landscape’.

Despite this intention, questions have been raised regarding who the Bill is sustainable for, as concerns remain regarding the longevity of smaller publications being able to utilise Facebook to distribute their news stories. 

Following the Facebook ban, negotiations between Facebook and the Australian government determined the government may not apply the Code to Facebook if the company can prove its established relationships with media outlets, paying them for content.

This has prompted Facebook to come to their own agreements with media companies. Those announced so far include larger publishers News Corp, Nine and Seven West Media and independent publishing companies Private Media, publisher of Crikey, as well as Solstice Media, publisher of South Australia’s InDaily.  

As Facebook and Google have begun initiating commercial deals with Australian publishing giants in response to the Code, The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) remain concerned smaller publishers will be left out in the cold.

MEAA Media Federal President Marcus Strom asserts that any code developed with the intention of benefitting the Australian media landscape should be fair, and “not at the whim of technology executives”.

“For small publishers who fail to make side deals with the tech giants, they could be locked out, further entrenching the narrow ownership base of the Australian media market,” Mr Strom said.

Despite developments and dealings, concerns around the impact of changing whims of technology executives remain.

While Facebook said they were satisfied with the agreement, Facebook Vice-president Campbell Brown said in a statement that Facebook retains the ability to remove news again.

The intention of retaining this right to remove news once again was said to be to prevent the company being subject to forced renegotiations. However, another removal as large as the first may again impact smaller news or community organisations despite not having a specified place in the Code or involvement in such negotiations.

So, how does this affect non-commercial student media that felt the impact of the ban as comparatively small fish?

When the Facebook ban initially took effect, student media pages, including On The Record, were removed.

In a media release published on February 19, The National Union of Students (NUS) and 27 co-signatories, including peak bodies and student media organisations around Australia, called on Facebook to review the ban to make essential services and university student union media outlets exempt.

NUS National President Zoe Ranganathan believes the issues expressed in their initial statement are still relevant to current Facebook changes.

“The NUS is committed to standing in solidarity with student media for as long as necessary in order to make sure that students have access to vital information about on campus activity,” Zoe said.

“Through this difficult time, it is pivotal student unions and student media lean on each other in order to make sure that students, on campus, in quarantine or overseas, feel included in student life.”

The student media organisation signatories in cooperation with the NUS include South Australian student publications, the University of Adelaide’s On Dit, and Flinders University’s Empire Times.

In considering the impact of this ongoing story on student media, the editors of On Dit are questioning whether a private entity should have the responsibility of a public service, which they believe Facebook has become.

“Facebook has compromised the trust of a lot of people with this move. It’s a strange situation – a failure of diplomacy not between two countries, but between a country and a private entity,” the On Dit editors said.

“This experience has made us question whether Facebook is the best means for us to get our content out to readers…without Facebook and only a monthly publishing schedule, we’d be severely hampered in the sort of news we can report on. 

“It’s good to be back online, but we know we’re in uncertain waters. The NUS has been with us every step of the way, and we’ll continue to cooperate with it to ensure student media in Australia remains strong and reliable.”

Likewise, Empire Times acknowledges the actions taken by Facebook hurt independent and small media outlets more than anyone else. Although their Facebook page wasn’t removed in the ban, Empire Times Editor, Nathan Cheetham said their publication will continue to support the NUS’ work to protect student interests and student media.

“Empire Times was lucky enough to survive the culling, but we were far too frightened to post anything during that period lest we get blacklisted too,” Nathan said.

“I think that this has made a lot of us student media editors realise that we can’t rely on Facebook to be our only source of engagement and it definitely can’t be the only way we share our stories…Much like small businesses and start-ups, we rely on social and guerrilla marketing to get the word out about what we do.”

“The work that we do as student media outlets – to amplify student voices – is far too important to be lost in a spat between the government and a social media giant.”

Where does On The Record stand?

On The Record is not a co-signatory of the NUS release, as we are not a product of any student union. While we have a positive relationship with our University’s student association, USASA, our content is not directly funded by or affiliated with them at this time.

We choose to remain independent from these means to avoid any conflict of interest when reporting on topics and issues that impact our students and the wider community.

We chose to report on the actions of the NUS and publish the response of other local publications as this is a story that can appear complex and ambiguous to students.

Our publication offers accessible explanations of timely, notable news that both impacts and is of interest to our audience. We recognise and encourage a diverse readership and understand the overlap between the audience of On Dit, Empire Times and On The Record.

While On The Record is back on Facebook and will continue to use the platform to distribute our news, we will also continue improving other avenues to share our content.

On The Record recognises the  now resolved Facebook ban, any future Facebook ban, and the Media Bargaining Code have severe consequences and implications for other outlets and the journalism industry as a whole. We recognise these consequences are more substantial than limiting our student publication’s reach.

Our editorial team will continue to follow this story closely.

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