Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson has quietly tabled a long-awaited bill aimed at shoring up dwindling media company revenues by forcing tech firms to pay for news content that appears on their sites.
The legislation was introduced to Parliament on Thursday last week but wasn’t accompanied by the usual fanfare of a ministerial stand-up or even a press release.
As written, the bill will task the Broadcasting Standards Authority with creating a bargaining code for digital platforms and news media companies. Both sides will be bound to follow the code and required to bargain in good faith. Media companies will be able to bargain collectively and if agreement can’t be reached, an arbitration process is outlined.
Crucially, the arbitration panel can’t select an offer which “is likely to have a serious adverse effect on people in New Zealand’s access to New Zealand news content or production of news content for a New Zealand audience”. The broadcasting minister is also empowered to issue exemptions to platforms.
Jackson’s office declined to answer questions from Newsroom for this article, saying, “The questions you are asking have been well-traversed in the media recently”. They pointed to the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s website instead. However, the logic behind the bill is also available in its explanatory note.
“There has been a shift in the way that people consume news and media content. News media is now accessed via online digital platforms. The shift has undermined the viability of traditional media business models,” the bill states.
“Online digital platforms aggregate and display news content to attract attention to their sites, and make money through advertising and other services, but do not effectively share that monetisation with the people who create the news content. Attempts by news media entities to bargain for the value of their news content are often unsuccessful.”
While public sector funding has helped some companies stay afloat, the legislation says this is undesirable because it erodes trust in media. Jackson hopes money from Meta (which owns Facebook, Instagram and Threads) and Google (which owns YouTube and the Google News platform) will replace public sector cash.
However, a senior lecturer in journalism at AUT and the author of a book on the relationship between news media and big tech says the cash won’t be enough to prop up the sector on its own. Merja Myllylahti is the co-director of the Journalism, Media and Democracy Research Centre and believes Jackson has overestimated how much tech companies will stump up even if they decide to play ball.
“I once calculated that Google and Meta payments for NZME – because they have a relationship with both – it’s a few percentage points of the total revenue. I think the platforms should be regarded as the publishers, not just the postman, so they should compensate if they use this content. But does it really change a lot? Not a lot,” she said.
“When Willie Jackson says this is going to compensate for [the end of] the Public Interest Journalism Fund, I don’t think so. I think he overestimates it.”
Myllylahti said the bill is more like Australia’s legislation than Canada’s. The difference is crucial, because Meta and Google have come to the table in Australia where the law is focused on bargaining and isn’t fully binding. That’s different from Canada, where Meta has shut off access to all news platforms on its websites because the law requires them to pay for the content.
“In Canada, it’s more almost like a link tax. As I read it, the New Zealand model is much closer to the Australian model because it is about the bargaining power and it is about the negotiating rather than paying for the links,” she said.
The consequences of the news block in Canada are potentially severe. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has in recent days fiercely criticised Meta for barring access to critical safety information about a spate of wildfires, which is being disseminated by news companies.
“Right now in an emergency situation, where up-to-date local information is more important than ever, Facebook is putting corporate profits ahead of people’s safety, ahead of quality local journalism. This is not the time for that,” he said on Monday local time. Meta has told Canadian news outlets that users can still access safety messages from government agencies and emergency services.
Is New Zealand in for a similar fate? Myllylahti thinks Meta could still throw its weight around here. Even in Australia, the company turned off news for a few days to get itself a more favourable deal when legislation moved through Parliament in 2021.
“I have a feeling that Meta is not going to be happy, whatever it is. I think they will walk out. My prediction is they will throw their hands up and say they are not publishing any news,” she said. Google, meanwhile, has inked more agreements with New Zealand news outlets and is therefore less affected by the bill. Meta has deals with just three (one of which is Newsroom) and they are not payments for news content as would be encouraged by the law.
In a statement, Meta said it hadn’t been engaged on the bill so was looking at it now.
“We have consistently said that legislation that ignores the realities of how our platforms work, their voluntary nature, the preferences of the people who use them and the free value we provide news publishers raises concerns,” Nick McDonnell, Meta’s head of policy for New Zealand and the Pacific Islands said.
“We will continue to be open and transparent with the Government and publishers on our business decisions as this issue progresses. We have not been formally engaged on the draft bill, so will now look at what is being proposed.”