TIME TO TACKLE TRUTH DECAY.
AUSTRALIA LEADS WAY WITH A STRONG NEWS PUBLISHING BUSINESS
It's increasingly rare that Canada's major political parties agree on anything, especially during a federal election campaign. Yet all agree that we should look toward Australia to ensure the long-term commercial viability of Canada's news publishing business. Why is a strong news publishing business important to Canadians? Simply put, journalism is vital to our democracy.
In their 2018 book Truth Decay, Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich of the RAND Corporation note that in the past, newspapers and news channels mediated information. As “gatekeeper” institutions, publishers and broadcasters were and remain accountable because they can be sued for defamation, and they are subject to certain standards and regulations. Not so with the social media and internet platform companies. The authors argue that “the filters and algorithms embedded in social media platforms and search engines, such as Google, contribute to Truth Decay — and particularly to increasing disagreement and the blurring of the distinction between opinion and fact — by inserting bias into the types of information a person is likely to encounter or engage with.”
We wholeheartedly agree with their conclusion that there are damaging consequences, including “the erosion of civil discourse; political paralysis; alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions; and policy uncertainty.”
Which brings us to the question: what can we do about it?
One solution is investing in investigative journalism, which is a formidable public check on the powerful, including governments and corporations. Investigative often drives administrative, legislative and regulatory reforms. But it takes an investment in time, talent and hard dollars. Today, with advertising dollars being siphoned off by Big Tech, dollars are scarce, and newsrooms are both stretched and stressed.
The Australians have figured this out. In 2019, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission proposed a mandatory code and arbitration regime to level the playing field between the country's news publishers and Google and Facebook that was opposed by both companies. That fierce opposition continued after the government introduced its bill. In February 2021, in a last-minute effort to stop the legislation, Google announced a “News Showcase” plan in Australia. Facebook threatened to walk away with their marbles and leave Australia altogether. Neither tactic succeeded. The bill received royal assent in March 2021.
The results have been a stunning success. To avoid binding arbitration, both platforms have negotiated contracts with the news media that provide meaningful remuneration. Although the actual terms are confidential, and some of contracts are still being negotiated, we understand that the two companies, on a combined basis, are paying in the range of 30 per cent of the cost of each full-time journalist. On Sept. 3, Google reached an agreement with Country Press Australia, which represents 180 independently owned regional and local newspapers and online platforms across Australia — demonstrating that smaller titles benefit from this approach.
That is far better than the divide and conquer approach employed by Big Tech, which lacks transparency, allows the platforms to play titles off against each other with inadequate compensation offers compared with what binding arbitration would provide, and leaves smaller titles out in the cold.
On behalf of Canada's news media publishers, News Media Canada is heartened to see that all major political parties in Canada support this approach and recognize the urgency of the situation. We have produced a draft Digital Platforms Act that can be introduced on Day One of the next Parliament.
Google and Facebook have combined annual revenue in Canada of more than $9 billion. Only through the threat of arbitration will meaningful remuneration be provided by those platforms to all Canadian news media. News Media Canada stands ready to assist in collective negotiation for titles — large and small.
All major Canadian political parties agree: the Australian model is a simple, fair, and proven solution that is working in that country. It will ensure that we can continue to invest in excellence in Canadian journalism — both today and over the long-term — and it will help fill the Truth Decay that is infecting our democracy.