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Big Tech companies like Google wield vast amounts of power in their respective fields. But by casting themselves as underdogs against monolithic but amorphous ‘Big Tech’, news organisations are seemingly exculpated from any fault of their own.

On February 27th, the UK House of Lords held a meeting into ‘the future of news: impartiality, trust and technology’. During the session, representatives from News UK, DMG Media, Reach plc and others gave oral evidence into the impact of technology on media business models.

As you’d have expected, it quickly became a whinge-fest in which the News UK, Reach plc and DMG Media representatives continued their abrogation of responsibility for the desultory state of the news industry by arguing that the bigger boys had stolen their lunch. It’s not their fault that they adapted too late to the digital publishing environment, you see, it was the bullies all along. 

Now it’s undeniably true that Google has a frankly terrifying amount of influence over the search space. That is a perennial issue that needs to be addressed at an international level. It’s also true that other platforms have huge issues with mis- and disinformation. Nobody’s seriously arguing otherwise.

The problem is that casting themselves in the role of the hard done-by smaller organisations those publishers have invented a single enemy that doesn’t actually exist. By conflating Google, Meta and Apple as the singular ‘Big Tech’, News UK’s David Dinsmore, DMG Media’s Peter Wright have revealed the real reasons for pretending to be the underdog.

Early in the proceedings, for example, Wright said of the payment-for-content arrangements that DMG Media has with Google: “They don’t even pretend to represent the value that news in Search provides to Google. A sum is named and you can take it or leave it.” So, then, ‘Big Tech’ relies so heavily on having news content from legitimate publishers in its search results that it should be fairly compensating them. Seems fair on the face of it.

Not five minutes later News UK’s David Dinsmore makes the claim that news content is so unimportant to Meta that it can arbitrarily turn off the spigot for publishers, causing news titles to lose a tremendous amount of advertising revenue: “Algorithms in general are, are a huge problem for us… we have The Sun which is almost entirely ad funded in the in the digital world. A lot of traffic historically has come through Facebook and with Facebook’s deprioritizing of news in the last 12 [to] 18 months… in a huge traffic decline there. This can have a seven figure impact on advertising revenues in the week.” 

That’s undeniably an issue for a news business, albeit one that The Sun caused for itself by being over reliant on social distribution.

The problem arises when both Dinsmore and Wright conflate Google and Meta into one entity, with both describing them as ‘the platforms’ and not challenging the Lords when they describe them as ‘Big Tech’. So we’re now in a situation where ‘the platforms’ are both so reliant on news content that they should pay compensation for its use, and simultaneously have such a lack of need for news content that they can simply stop including it at no cost to themselves.

To be fair, other panellists including both the FT’s CCO John Slade and Guardian Media Group’s CEO Anna Bateson did note the nuance between platforms – but also noted that as membership and subscription-based organisations they are somewhat inured against reliance on Meta and Google’s platforms.

Relative underdogs

It all came to a head when, in closing, the Lords concluded that the solution to the problem with the media industry’s relationship could lie in redressing the balance “between, as you described, multi billion global corporations and little old British news media”. 

That’s what really rankles here. When you have a situation where organisations as large as News UK and DMG Media are allowed to cast themselves as underdogs against monolithic but amorphous ‘Big Tech’, it exculpates those news organisations from any fault of their own. They’re being bullied, end of story, no nuance, no self-examination.

Elsewhere in the discussion, the Lords asked about the lack of adequate training for young journalists, and the panellists brought up the lack of increase in journalists’ wages over the past few years – both of which are apparently a direct result of Big Tech’s actions. No mention was made of, say, the National Union of Journalists’ campaigns against bonus culture at Reach plc, which puts the blame for slow wage growth squarely on the shoulders of media companies themselves.

As we’ve argued before on Media Voices, media businesses asking the government to legislate for direct payments from Google and Meta is nothing but a naked cash-grab from opportunistic news organisations. But that’s exactly what the idea that huge news organisations are the underdog empowers them to do.

Towards the end of the discussion, true to form, Wright spoke favourably about the Digital Markets Bill, saying: “we expect those to cover a lot of the areas where we have problems, particularly digital advertising, hopefully search algorithms and payment for content is another area.”

But, as we’ve also seen elsewhere, the existing schemes that force tech platforms to pay ‘for content’ only benefit the biggest players in the market – and small news organisations can go hang. It serves News UK and DMG Media to play the underdog, but they do so at the expense of the actual underdogs in media, and it should be called out much more regularly.

The rest of the discussion – in which Mill Media’s Joshi Herrmann called out similarly ridiculous claims of underdogship and lack of responsibility from Reach plc and Newsquest – is well worth a watch.

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