The decision by Facebook to remove all news content from its site in Australia will seem to many as a bold, even rash, move. On the face of it, the escalation of a simmering dispute with the government in Canberra, which has been attempting to extract payment for the country’s proud news media industry in exchange for the supply of content for the social media behemoth’s users, is sudden and crude.
It is hard to disagree with Scott Morrison, the pugilistic Australian prime minister, that Mark Zuckerberg’s company was “arrogant” in taking the decision to “unfriend Australia”. But what should he have expected? Wrestle with the American technology giants at your peril. The EU and Google have been bogged down in legal wrangles for years. One of the great lines of the newspaper era, used by and attributed to many, but most memorably HL Mencken, seems apt: “Never pick a quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” Well, today you should never pick a quarrel with a multinational with hundreds of millions of dollars in loose change and valuable access to the identities and internet behaviour patterns of much of the planet’s population. Or if you do, be prepared for pushback.
A particularly barbed response came from Jason Kint, chief executive of a trade body, Digital Content Next, who tweeted: “World’s greatest amplifier of disinfo and toxic sludge to your newsfeed is going to block the most trusted news brands in the world from reaching Australians. Why? Because its business model can’t handle anything other than surveillance capitalism. I hope its employees are proud.”
While he has a point, and was echoed by many others, such comments reflect an industry that is on thin ice when it takes shots like this against digital content distributors. I am obviously not courting popularity by saying this, but the control of their product that out-of-their-depth managements of news organisations ceded to technology companies over the last two decades was nothing less than negligence and a betrayal of their proprietors and the journalists they employed in what would soon become ever-depleted numbers.
The industry’s discombobulation is deserved. Those managers did not even flinch or pause to consider with any seriousness the consequences as they sought the warm embrace of an instantly accessible, global digital presence. They spent increasing sums on technology without understanding that they were signing over all of their intellectual property to people who saw it purely as a raw commodity, not as something that was the output of highly skilled professionals whose discourse was, at least to some extent, a public service.
Egged on by the technology companies and enchanted by their glamour, their newness, their exotic West Coast geekiness, the blue-blooded media giants shot themselves in the foot only to complain about their hospital bill. I know this because I was present and probably as guilty as the rest who played a small part in that transitional era in news media – and I still don’t pretend to know the ideal solution.
I won't say the battle was lost back then, as there are some successful models still taking shape, where readers are happy to pay a modest subscription charge for quality journalism that cannot be hijacked by third parties such as Facebook. Just as the axe was falling in Australia, there was another glimmer of hope: Newscorp – the Wall Street Journal among its titles – signed a three-year licensing deal with Google. Both sides will benefit. It is a civilised arrangement on the face of it. It is another model that Facebook would do well to consider.
Trust in the media is at a low point, and the value placed on the old-fashioned skills of reporting and writing well, and entertaining readers, has diminished in the eyes of the public. People now invest in a television, in a phone and in a laptop, but take some convincing to then pay for the news when there is so much out there for free. But – as with almost everything in life – someone has to pay for it.
Joe Jenkins is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National