Senate journalism committee calls for media tax benefits and law reform while ducking tech giants’ role

Tax breaks for subscriptions to reputable news organisations, along with reviews of defamation and national security laws are key recommendations of the Senate’s Future of Public Interest Journalism inquiry.

However, the committee made no recommendations on how to manage challenges from Facebook and Google, citing insufficient evidence of the tech giants’ influence on the local media sector.

The Senate inquiry began in May

The Senate Inquiry, which commenced on May 10 last year, aimed to look at the state of public interest journalism, the adequacy of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s regulation and the impact search engines and social media has on the sector.

It also reviewed the future of public and community broadcasters’ role in delivering journalism.

Recommendations include adequate funding for ABC and SBS so they can deliver on ‘charter obligations’ and support regional areas, assurance of future funding for community broadcasting sector beyond the government’s forward estimates and an audit of current laws which impact journalists reporting on areas such as national security and border protection.

Another recommendation calls on the Treasury to look at extending tax deductible status of subscriptions to news media organisations which ‘adhere to appropriate standards of practice for public interest journalism’ for all Australians.

The committee has also called for a review of defamation laws to ensure there is an appropriate balance between public interest journalism and protection of individuals, as well as a way to extend whistleblower and shield law protections.

Meanwhile, criticisms of Google and Facebook are “discussed briefly” on page 64 of the report.

The committee expressed concerns over claims Google and Facebook may have abused market power over the media sector.

It made reference to News Corp executive chairman Michael Miller’s comments which appeared in the Australian Financial Review: “Making quality subscription news publishers suffer in search rankings unless they give Google and its search users content for free; displaying snippets of publishers’ content in Google News listings to attract eyeballs which fund its advertising revenue and to discourage users seeking out content elsewhere; manipulating search results to promote its own news vertical.”

But the committee made no recommendations regarding these allegations for the following reasons:  “Firstly, the committee did not receive sufficient volume of evidence in these areas to reach any definitive conclusions. Secondly, over the course of this inquiry, the government directed the ACCC to undertake an inquiry into aggregators and social media platforms, including Google and Facebook, and potential negative or unfair effects on consumers, media content creators-including journalists, and advertisers,” the report said.

“The ACCC inquiry has broader terms of reference than this committee, as well as the resources, expertise and time to consider these matters in full, before it presents its final findings to government in mid-2019.”

Google refuted claims of abusing market power and demanding publishing adopt the ‘First Click Free’ changes, in August last year.

Google’s Jason Pellegrino told the inquiry that quality journalism was a matter of “vital public interest.”

But the recommendations put forward by the Senate committee were disputed by some Coalition senators.

The coalition senators – who “were skeptical about the value of yet another inquiry in Australia’s media landscape” at the time of its announcement – said the media reform package, which passed in September, would have a “meaningful and beneficial effect on public interest journalism.”

The media reforms include an abolishment of licence fees for commercial broadcasters, repeal of the two out of three ownership rule, a $604.5m jobs and innovation package for regional and small publishers, adequate funding to ABC, SBS and additional funding to community radio broadcasters.

But the Coalition Senators said they found it hard to take seriously any concerns expressed by Labor and Green Senators around public interest journalism, in light of their obstructions to elements of the media reforms bill.

“Some of the ideas considered in the report, such as a new and vaguely defined Commonwealth body to offer direct financial support for journalism, are fraught with danger and could radically change the relationship between government and independent media. Coalition Senators strongly oppose this concept and the unorthodox proposal to fund this body with a new tax on content aggregators such as Facebook and Google,” additional comments from Coalition Senators said.

“Coalition Senators are open to encouraging philanthropic investment in not for profit journalism through the tax system, while noting commercial media outlets are, and will likely remain, the mainstay of news gathering and investigation in Australia.”

While the Senate agreed on an Australia Law Reform Commission audit, it said defamation laws were primarily a state government responsibility. They also said the Committee’s deliberations “bore little relationship” to the objective of the industry.

“Whilst Labor and Greens Senators spend their time grandstanding, Coalition Senators supported the Government’s actions to preserve and enhance public interest journalism in Australia.”


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