Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|May 27, 2022|11 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

How Africa can get its fair share of the Google Meta millions?

Australian journalists are gathering news, finding truths and starting new jobs thanks to a landmark agreement with the people behind Facebook (now Meta) and Google. Under it, the big two tech outfits pay millions to news gatherers to cover the cost of finding and writing original stories.  Why cant Africa do this ? It can  according to top civil servant Rod Sims who spoke to Billionaire Tomorrow from Sydney in an exclusive interview.

Imagine a world where the free word is supported by a growing team of fairly salaried, independent, journalists across Africa supported  by the two tech giants Google and Meta (Facebook).

It is happening in Australia, as I write this. Newsrooms are sitting down to negotiate deals with the two online giants, securing millions of dollars for news coverage.

Each media house in the land is entitled to negotiate its own deal under agreed codes. Under these codes newsrooms are paid money; in return Meta (Facebook) and Google get the rights to run stories that those same newsrooms write.

Two of the biggest news organizations in Australia have shared  nearly $50 million between them with many more expected to follow.

“Then you have the medium size companies. The Guardian is very happy with its deal. So is Australian Community Media, one of the regional players. You have the other network, Channel 10, and a whole lot of other players. I don’t know, you could possibly round it off to 200 million (about $140 million). Just guessing from gathering public information,” says Rod Sims, the head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission who was at the heart of the deal.

Africa can wake up to this reality if it can combine political will with precise paperwork.

So says the hard working and measured civil servant Sims who ushered in a new way of getting money for journalism from the people who put it online. He was the man who worked on new codes in Australia that paved the way to the tech giants agreeing to pour money into newsrooms. He believes Africa can pick up on Australia’s success.

“I don’t think it is that expensive and they can build on the work we have already done and just apply it to Africa. I don’t think it will be much money, I know money is tight everywhere. Particularly in Africa at this time. If they can put a little group together with people from government and competition agencies. It’s a people cost and an analysis cost. It is not a cost otherwise,” says Sims.

It all began in 2020 when the Australian government asked Sims and his researchers to write a report on digital platforms and their market.

“We came up with 23 recommendations of which one was – there should be a media bargaining code. We recommended that that should involve a first attempted voluntary agreement between the platforms and the media companies. If that didn’t work, through a mandatory code. Halfway through the nine-month period; we, in our recommendation, allowed for a voluntary agreement. We set up a voluntary negotiation. The government asked for an update and we said it doesn’t look like a voluntary agreement is going to work. We said right, let’s then go to mandatory route,” Sims told Billionaire Tomorrow from Sydney.

Sims began negotiating with Meta (Facebook) and Google. It wasn’t easy.

“ It is fair to say that Google was charming, as they always are. They were willing to do some things but not other things. They said that if the code went through -in the form that we were proposing- that they would have to leave the country,” recalls Sims.

“Facebook is always a little harder to deal with, they thought this was completely wrong and had nothing to do with them. They took a harder line and said they want nothing to do with the code. They had some formulations, but they rejected the core element of the code that there should be arbitration.  So basically, the code says negotiate arbitrate regime; and if you can’t reach an agreement there will be 3rd party arbitration.  The logic of that is there is an unequal bargaining position between parties.

How you help the media companies is to give them a course to arbitration. Facebook flatly rejected that. I’m sure you remember they -without any warning to anybody- pulled all news and emergency information.  We had bushfires on in Australia, and they pulled that information. Obviously also Covid. They pulled information about that down and I think they got a bit of a backlash from that.”

Eventually the legislated codes went through Parliament in Canberra and the two online giants agreed to sit down and negotiate with news organizations.

Could it happen and deliver millions for newsgathering in Africa?

“I think it would be helpful to have some organization, whether it is your Competition authority. In Africa there is a grouping of competition authorities. They could jointly do the work, which means picking up the work we did and trying to apply to Africa. Just to understand some basic statistics: How important are digital platforms?

“How much do the digital platforms use media content in Africa?  Is it Africa as a whole?  It would be great if they could do it as a whole because it is awfully time consuming. When Africa comes together it is much more powerful. If the Competition Authorities could be charged by the organization of African states,” says Sims.

“If they can do a study into this and duplicate the statistics. How important are the digital platforms and how much do they use journalistic content? The Competition Authorities can work it out; and we are willing to help.

Work out just how appropriate the approach in Australia was to Africa. If they form that view, then away you go.”

In these difficult and lean times for the media in Africa – there are likely to be many media houses likely to take up the challenge.

The civil servant and the flight lieutenant of Ghana.

Rod Sims is no stranger to Africa and honed a few of his legendary negotiating skills on the continent.

Sims travelled African Asian and Caribbean countries – working with the Commonwealth Secretariat – for 10 years advising developing nations. He also spent five years working in Papua New Guinea.

His work saw him land in Accra, the capital of Ghana, in the turbulent days after Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings had wrested power from the civil authorities.

“I went there many times when Jerry Rawlings was just taking over. There were a bunch of very bright enthusiastic people around him. Unfortunately, I lost touch with him. I lost that contact. I have wonderful memories of Ghana, there was a time when I had to bring in my own food when I was visiting. Ghana went through some very tough times,” recalls Sims.

“ I met Jerry Rawlings and it was an interesting encounter. I was there mainly to help them negotiate the deal between Kaiser Aluminium and the Hydro Facility that was producing the energy for Kaiser Aluminium. As you know, an aluminium smelter needs a hell of a lot of energy and they were getting it at a price that was set a long time ago at a ridiculous price, post the oil crisis. This is going back a long time in history. The oil crisis saw many electricity companies in the USA renegotiate their deals with aluminium companies. The Ghanaians were doing the same thing and I was one of their key advisors.”

Sims returned to Australia as an economic advisor to the prime minister and pursued his career in public service that culminated in a landmark deal that journalism may celebrate for years to come.