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Government regulation of digital platforms would be a dangerous mistake, warns publisher Morry Schwartz

Publisher Morry Schwartz has criticised media companies’ proposals to regulate Facebook and Google as a danger to press freedom in a speech describing the evolving industry landscape.

Delivering the 2018 Brian Johns Lecture, Schwartz criticised the major media organisations’ submissions to the ACCC Digital Platforms inquiry, saying they would present unacceptable dangers to the freedom for the press.

“There is no road back to the old model, Facebook and Google have simply taken too much out of the pie,” said Schwartz.

“In Australia, they have captured over half the total advertising revenue in little over a decade, the media industry is calling for government intervention, but in my opinion that would be unacceptably dangerous for freedom of the press.”

Schwartz whose company publishes The Saturday Paper, The Monthly and Australian Foreign Policy, observed the economics of the media industry increasingly favour paid subscriptions.

“For a moment there, newspapers were not charging at all. What absolute idiots. The other thing should have happened – they should have charged five times as much for the news. It was a strategic mistake the world over.”

The veteran publisher flagged the failings in free media models.

“There is nothing free under the sun. Free is okay for government-supported media as it’s not really free, we all pay. But it comes at a cost – after all Aunty returned the filing cabinets.

“Free content comes with a great threat as one taskmaster is replaced with another. In the past, a publisher had to tread gingerly around the concerns of big advertisers. But when the news became funded by the readers they become the bosses, and much tougher ones than that.

“With digital news the publishers exactly know what their readers read and want to read and when survival is at stake, even the highest journalistic ethics will be tested.

“This is the crux of the new reality. When the publishers chase numbers, they pander to their readers and their content tends towards irrelevance. They no longer challenge, they seek the readers’ love, they only entertain. It is not possible to think critically in public while at the same time giving the readers what they want.

“We all know the history. The two big publishers – News and Fairfax – tried free content, but immediately realised their folly and started building paywalls. People paid for news in the past, why not now? People pay for Netflix, why not their news?

“It was the norm before the 20th century, news was an elite product. The rich will get the rich news while the rest of us will get the free, trashy news.

“We are seeing the victory of tabloid news, which has always put owners’ and shareholders’ profits ahead of the ideals of journalism.”

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