HomeNews Corp chief executive to appear at Senate inquiry into media diversity

News Corp chief executive to appear at Senate inquiry into media diversity

News Corp chief executive Robert Thomson has revealed what he spoke about with Prime Minister Scott Morrison when they caught up in New York.

Political issues in the US, China and Japan were discussed when Prime Minister Scott Morrison met with News Corp leaders in New York in September, but there was no discussion of the Mission Zero series, the company’s chief executive Robert Thomson has revealed.

Speaking to the Senate Committee inquiry into media diversity on Friday, Mr Thomson said the upcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow was only briefly discussed when he and Mr Morrison had drinks when the Prime Minister was in town for UN Week in late September. The talk covered a broad range of international issues, he said.

Mr Morrison did not meet with News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch during his New York visit, Mr Thomson confirmed.

Mission Zero is News Corp Australia’s education series on the risks of climate change and the importance of a net zero economy.

Asked by committee chair Sarah Hanson-Young about the series, Mr Thomson said the Glasgow COP26 conference had helped prompt the need for the content.

In his opening statement to the committee, Mr Thomson said News Corp’s policy on environmental issues was consistent with Rupert Murdoch’s 2006 statement that “the planet deserves the benefit of the doubt”.

He rejected a suggestion from Senator Hanson-Young that the company took a collective approach on issues.

In the UK, The Times and Sunday Times took diverging approaches on Brexit, he said.

Senator Hanson-Young appeared to suggest that the Mission Zero series demonstrated a lack of diversity within the company, but Mr Thomson stressed individual editors made decisions about content.

Mr Thomson also rejected a suggestion that the Mission Zero series was designed to push a case for Australia to adopt nuclear power.

This was “absolutely not” the case, he said.

Asked whether Rupert or Lachlan Murdoch had changed their opinion on climate change, Mr Thomson said: “Not at any length. We have general discussions”.

Asked about News Corp coverage of the Black Summer bushfires, Mr Thomson rejected a suggestion that arson was given undue weight in reports.

“We had hundreds of journalists who were doing their very best to provide information to Australians,” he said. “I was proud of their coverage.”

Mr Thomson said there had been no “Damascene conversion” on climate issues within News Corp, and that there had been a level of consistency on reporting dating back to 2006.

Earlier during the hearing, Mr Thomson raised concerns about the potential for global online media platforms to move into Australian sport.

In August 2020, Facebook launched a pay-per-view option for video in 44 countries, including the US.

It had attracted more than 2.85 billion monthly active users by May, amid rumours the company planned to expand it to host sports games from smaller leagues.

Mr Thomson said he had “no doubt” that platforms such as Facebook had the capacity to move into the sporting arena in Australia.

“I have no doubt they’ll be in the Australian markets as buyers very soon,” he said.

Mr Thomson said any tech giants that operate in Australia should be subject to local regulation.

While there were a myriad ways for complainants to raise concerns about print issues, there was no such recourse when it came to the tech giants, he said.

“Last time I looked they were about 67 times larger than us,” he said.

He said many jurisdictions were looking at how to regulate the tech giants.

“The world is looking for ways to oversight these companies … how to define their roles, how to define their obligations,” he said.

Asked by Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg about his perceptions of Facebook, Mr Thomson said he personally had a lot of respect for Mark Zuckerberg, “but as these companies become large and successful.. they become more bureaucratic”

“I think sometimes Mark’s intention gets lots in the bureaucracy,” he said.

Australian Press Council received 800 complaints

The Australian Press Council, which handles complaints about newspapers, magazines and digital publications, also appeared before the inquiry, though the council’s chair Neville Stevens said concerns about whether Australia should have a separate complaints body for print publications required “further consideration”.

Introducing government oversight of media when the media was holding the government accountable, however, was not the right solution, he said.

“I believe we do need to look at what the current media environment looks like,” he said.

“It’s very different to when the Press Council was first set up.”

Mr Stevens said the council received about 800 complaints about Australian publications over the last financial year, including 540 against News Corp mastheads.

From those complaints, “there were 14 adjudications,” including 11 against News Corp, of which six were upheld.

The Australian Press Council was in talks with Facebook and Google “in regard to online media,” Mr Stevens said, though the authority had found it “very hard to get decisions out of them at times” and issues about content published on their platform remained problematic.

“There are very significant issues in regards to liability of some particular publications,” Mr Stevens said.

He said the council had discussed “the role the Press Council might play” in taking complaints about material published on the social media and web platforms, as well as advocating on behalf of media groups.

“To be frank, they are big organisations and we are not necessarily their number one stakeholder,” he said.

Mr Stevens’ comments come after a High Court decision recently ruled Australian media outlets were legally responsible for third-party comments published on their Facebook profiles, and after Mr Morrison doubled-down on a commitment to take action on holding digital platforms accountable for the content they published.

Urgent need to secure future of news production, think tank says

Public Interest Journalism chair, Professor Allan Fels, rejected calls for new media competition laws based on the syndication of news stories, but suggested changes could be made to Australia’s News Media Bargaining Code to make deals between tech giants and outlets clear.

The laws, introduced in February this year, forced Facebook and Google to negotiate with Australian media outlets over the use of their content.

But Professor Fels, who headed The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for eight years, said the laws did not outline what deals had been done and at what price.

“We don’t really know much about how much money is going to who and who is missing out,” he said.

“It would be much better if there was a whole lot more transparency there.”

Professor Fels said since the group’s inception in late 2018, there had been more change than anyone thought possible in the news media landscape worldwide.

“But one thing hasn’t changed — the need to find ways to secure the future of news production, and more specifically the future of public interest journalism across its spectrum of investigative reporting to the nuts and bolts of routine but crucial media coverage of news,” he said.

“If anything, this prerequisite has become more urgent.

“Following an era of sustained media convergence and digital disruption, the onset of Covid-19 dried up the last vestiges of meaningful advertising revenue for new media and resulted in dramatic market changes over the past 18 months.”

Professor Fels said while news was important to democracy and a critical service during emergencies, particularly in regional areas, the cost of production was high.

As financial returns diminished, so too did commercial incentives to continue its production, he added.

He said sustainable public interest journalism relied on a thriving, diverse media sector that included a variety of commercial and public operators.

Professor Fels suggested a “mix of fiscal measures” was necessary to support transition, stimulate existing news businesses and encourage new entries.

“To encourage news diversity, support should be tied to quality news production and availability — something that has not always been the case in the Australian context,” he said.

No silver bullet as media landscape changes

The think tank’s chief executive Anna Draffin said data had showed there had been 232 closures, reductions in service or ends of print editions, while there had been 110 expansions since January 2019.

“Most of these changes occurred within the last 18 months, of which roughly two-thirds were market contractions and those were disproportionately skewed to regional Australia,” she said.

“Regional contractions were more likely to be closures or decreased services of local titles, while the majority the metropolitan contractions were end of print editions, echoing the trend that we’re seeing towards to to digital.”

Ms Draffin said the eastern states were the most impacted, with NSW, Queensland and Victoria together accounting for 87 per cent of all changes in the past two years.

The ACT, Northern Territory and Tasmania accounted for the remainder.

Ms Draffin said there were a range of solutions worthy of consideration.

“Tax mechanisms could offer significant returns and public benefit,” she said.

“Research shows that an industry rebate scheme could inject $356m per annum and tie investment directly to public interest journalism outcomes.

“Such a scheme has recently been adopted by the Canadian government.

“Philanthropic giving, as per the US example, could also stimulate a domestic for profit news sector.”

Ms Draffin said Australia’s news blackout on Facebook earlier this year demonstrated the extent to which people’s everyday lives relied upon news and current affairs, especially during the pandemic.

“Public interest journalism is a public good, which needs safeguarding now but there is no silver bullet,” she said.

Australians ‘value local newspapers’

Deakin University communication professor Matthew Ricketson told the inquiry media convergence was a “lived reality” for journalists and those who consumed journalism, but the regulatory framework had changed only marginally.

He noted the Australian Press Council was a voluntary self regulator and there was news that was not being regulated.

Professor Ricketson, who worked on the Finkelstein Inquiry into media regulation in 2012, was also critical of News Corporation contributing about 60 per cent of the council’s annual funding.

He recommended a new body to regulate print, radio, television, online and the big technology platforms.

“It’s no longer fit for purpose and it does need to be looked at again thoroughly,” he said.

Associate Professor Kristy Hess, from the same department at the university, said it was very clear Australians valued local news, especially a local newspaper.

She said a survey found that policies affecting the future of local news would influence the way readers voted at the next federal election.

Local news has different ‘mantra’

Country Press Australia board member Bruce Ellen claimed News Corporation had “abandoned” regional areas in Queensland, with the aim of channeling readers to the metropolitan publications.

“News Corp shut down regional Queensland … we believe they abandoned their regional communities,” he said.

“All they‘re doing is trying to drive audiences through their regional URLs into the metro papers, which quite clearly is not in the realms of what media diversity should look like.”

But Mr Ellen added that the result had been independent publications popping up in the areas.

He said there were opportunities for independents but it was a tough market.

Asked about funding that AAP received, Mr Ellen said he did not agree with the proposition that AAP was “absolutely critical” to providing news for his members.

“I simply do not agree with that proposition at all,” he said.

“I know that AAP put that proposition but media diversity is all about employing local journalism in local markets to write local stories. That’s what our members do.

“I do dispute the amount of funding they got.”

Mr Ellen said local news had a different “mantra” and if their readers wanted broader news there were other sources, such as the ABC.

News Corp is the publisher of this article.

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