The ABC is on the brink of signing a lucrative deal for its journalism to appear in Google’s Showcase product as the national broadcaster secures an undertaking from Facebook to restore ABC Kids, which the social network inadvertently blocked.
Facebook has not offered to make a commercial deal with the ABC, however, and the social media giant’s latest offering to Nine Entertainment and News Corp Australia has been rejected.
Industry sources said Facebook, which remains in talks with the Morrison government over the proposed media bargaining code, was still insisting on tearing up any offers with media companies should the code become law. It has already passed the lower house and was before the Senate on Monday evening.
“We’ve been engaging with the Australian government to outline our ongoing concerns with the proposed law,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “We will continue to work with the government on amendments to the law, with the aim of achieving a stable, fair path for both Facebook and publishers.”
The government is putting pressure on Facebook by withdrawing all of its advertising from the platform.
According to the government’s advertising report, it spent a total of $42m on digital advertising in 2019-20, but an exact figure for how much of that was on Facebook is not available due to commercial sensitivity.
The federal finance minister, Simon Birmingham, followed the lead of the health minister, Greg Hunt, on Monday by widening the government advertising ban from health to all departments.
“My expectation is that we will pull back from advertising while they undertake this type of terrible activity of pulling down sites inappropriately, seeking to exert power or influence over our democratic systems,” Birmingham told the ABC. “We won’t tolerate that. We will be standing firm on the legislation and looking at all those advertising points.”
ABC Kids, along with ABC TV, the iView catch-up service and Gardening Australia, were among the hundreds of pages wiped by Facebook last week when non-news content got caught up in its mass removal of news pages in response to the government’s proposed media code.
Sources say the ABC’s imminent commercial arrangement with Google involves displaying its content in the Google Showcase product – a deal that will see the search giant “return some of the value it gets from ABC content back to the broadcaster” with additional funds for regional journalism.
The communications minister, Paul Fletcher, has undertaken to not use the additional revenue as an excuse to reduce the ABC’s funding in future budgets.
Talks started on Monday between Facebook and the ABC to restore the ABC’s Facebook pages on which it communicates with the public about TV and radio programs. The inclusion of ABC and SBS in the list of media organisations eligible under the code came only after Labor and the Greens insisted they be added – but the move is not without its critics.
Former ABC staff said on Monday that accepting a commercial deal from Google put the public broadcaster on a path to privatisation and it should be rejected.
“The precedent set by the ABC entering into a contract to share Google’s ad revenue will set the ABC on a commercial path and make it easier for any hostile federal government in future to demand more commerciality, not less,” ABC Alumni, a lobby group made up of former broadcasters and production staff, said.
But the ABC rejected the claim, saying it has had a commercial arm for decades and any additional revenue from Google will be reinvested in regional services.
“Where digital platforms are deriving value from the use of ABC news content, the ABC and taxpayers have a legitimate interest in ensuring that a portion of that value is reinvested into ABC journalism,” a spokesman said.
“The ABC has entered into commercial arrangements to generate revenue for more than 40 years through its ABC Commercial division. All commercial agreements fall within the appropriate guard rails to ensure the independence and editorial responsibilities of the ABC are maintained. ABC Commercial contributes all its profits to content producers at the ABC and receives no taxpayer funding.”