Mediaweek Roundup: Media Code, HBO Max, Joe Aston trial + more

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• Plus the major news affecting the Media Bargaining Code

Media Code

Media push on tech giants ‘a dress rehearsal for world’

Heavyweight international publishing groups have warned tech titans that the world is viewing the debate over the proposed news media code in Australia as a “dress rehearsal” for similar deals across the globe, and rubbished Google’s “silly” threat to exit certain markets if it is forced to pay for news content, reports News Corp’s James Madden and Lilly Vitorovich.

News Media Alliance — the largest media trade organisation in the US, which counts The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times as members — said Australia was leading the global charge against the bullying tactics of Google.

“Misinformation is a plague on civic society and the Australian government is a leader in understanding that the first step to addressing the problem is ensuring that quality news and information can live online.”

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Google’s ad dominance under fire

Google’s digital advertising dominance and potential misuse of market power will be pursued by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, which has raised concerns over the tech giant’s stranglehold on person­alised display ads, reports News Corp’s Geoff Chambers and David Swan.

The interim report for the ACCC’s Digital Advertising Services Inquiry, to be released on Thursday, warns of a lack of competition and transparency across the $3.4bn display advertising sector and Google’s “ability and ­incentive to favour its own related business interests”.

The consumer watchdog’s investigation into digital display advertising, which makes up 37 per cent of the $9.1bn online advertising market, found Google held up to 90 per cent of the industry when measured via impressions, and 70 per cent of the revenue.

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Ad experts warn Google’s Australian exit could hurt businesses

Advertising experts have warned Google’s threat to cut off search in Australia could hurt businesses but said they can survive as the competition watchdog prepares to release new findings that expose the tech giant’s dominance of the local digital ad market, reports SMH‘s Zoe Samios and Lisa Visentin.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has found a lack of competition and transparency in Australia’s $3.4 billion a year ad tech industry is causing significant problems for publishers, advertisers and consumers following a year-long inquiry into the sector.

Ahead of Thursday’s release of a report outlining concerns about Google’s continued dominance and anti-competitive behaviour, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has indicated further regulation may be needed.

“We need to ensure our regulatory frameworks keep pace with the changes being driven by digital platforms,” Frydenberg said.

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Media code is a Stalinist show trial

Last week Google Australia’s managing director Melanie Silva told a Senate committee that if the government’s proposed media bargaining code becomes law then Google will turn off its widely used search engine in the country, writes AFR‘s Richard Holden.

This is neither an idle threat nor an unreasonable one. The media bargaining code is hopelessly flawed. It misunderstands the cause of the decline in media revenues, seeks to extract money from unrelated activities of technology companies like Google and Facebook, has requirements that threaten the core business of those companies, and has a bargaining system that could most politely be described as “rigged”. It is the public policy equivalent of Stalinist show trial.

And it is, sadly, easy to see how it came about. An overzealous competition regulator with questionable economic acumen in Rod Sims proposes something that, if one doesn’t really think about it sounds plausible. This benefits local media companies and hurts big bad multi-trillion dollar, multi-national technology companies. Those local media companies naturally come out in favour of it and politicians, who live and die by their media coverage, fall in behind it. It is the perfect storm of bad policy with no check on it.

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Business of Media

HBO Max Reaches 37.7M, Including 17.2M “Activated,” Subscribers

The final few weeks of 2020 proved invaluable for WarnerMedia’s HBO Max. The streaming service, buoyed by an eight-months-in-the-making distribution deal with Roku and the Christmas Day release of Wonder Woman 1984, ended the year with 17.17 million activated users, twice as many as at the start of the fourth quarter, AT&T disclosed Wednesday, report The Hollywood Reporter’s Georg Szalai and Natalie Jarvey.

HBO Max now reaches 37.7 million total subscribers. That compares with 28.7 million subscribers, including 8.6 million activated users, as of the end of September.

Combined, HBO and HBO Max had 41.5 million U.S. subscribers as of the end of 2020, compared with 38.0 million as of the end of September.

Launched at the end of May, HBO Max faced a pair of formidable early challenges, overcoming its confusing branding — at the time, WarnerMedia also operated streaming products HBO Now and HBO Go — and its lack of distribution on two major connected TV platforms, Roku and Amazon Fire. Unlike competitor Disney+, which attracted more than 26 million subscribers in its first two months, HBO Max plodded along, adding 4.1 million activated users in its first month.

But interest in the service began to pick up heading in the final few months of 2020 after it struck a distribution deal with Amazon in November and released a content lineup that featured buzzy original series The Flight Attendant and HBO limited series The Undoing.

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News Brands

Businesswoman called ‘feminist cretin’ by AFR journalist Joe Aston wins $280,000 in defamation case

A former managing director of a venture capital firm has been awarded damages of $280,000 by the federal court after it found she was defamed by the Australian Financial Review and columnist Joe Aston, reports Guardian Australia‘s Amanda Meade.

Sydney’s federal court on Wednesday awarded damages and aggravated damages to Dr Elaine Stead for the “high degree of subjective hurt to feelings aggravated by the campaign that had been and was being maintained against her”. The amount awarded to Stead is a fraction of the legal fees for both sides, which according to the publisher are in excess of $2m.

“[Aston] did single her out for focus and engaged in a sustained campaign of offensive mockery which amounted, in my view, to a form of bullying, federal court justice Michael Lee said.

Aston and the Australian Financial Review were sued by Stead, then of Blue Sky Alternative Investments, for defamation over Rear Window columns published in February and October 2019.

Aston, who is based in Los Angeles, described Stead as a “feminist cretin” and said that she “set fire to people’s money”.

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AFR columnist Joe Aston trod fine line with sharp tongue in $280,000 defamation trial

You have likely seen enough of Joe Aston’s feet. Behold, now, his not inexpensive tongue, reports News Corp’s Caroline Overington

Aston’s decision to describe the venture capitalist, Dr Elaine Stead, as a “cretin” who “set fire to other people’s money” has cost his employer, Nine Entertainment Co — publisher of Aston’s Rear Window in the Australian Financial Review – $280,000 in ordinary and aggravated damages.

There will likely be some interest and some legal bills.

It sounds like yet another loss for the media, but Justice Michael Lee, presiding in the Federal Court in Sydney, did have some fond words for Aston, and some encouraging ones for the media.

Columnists are entitled to their opinions, he said. But those opinions must be “properly held” which is to say, based on identifiable facts.

In this case, it seemed to Justice Lee that Aston had engaged in something that more closely amounted to “a form of bullying.”

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Blue Sky manager could still be out of pocket after $280k award

Venture capitalist Dr Elaine Stead could still find herself out of pocket despite the Federal Court awarding her $280,000 in damages after finding that The Australian Financial Review columnist Joe Aston was not justified in calling her a “cretin”, reports AFR‘s Michael Pelly.

The court is yet to decide the issue of costs, but Dr Stead faces a negative return for her litigation if the court finds she is only entitled to ordinary costs. These usually cover only about two-thirds of a person’s legal fees, which can top $1 million for defamation trials.

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Joe Aston defamation trial: AFR’s detailed coverage and analysis

No Blue Sky accountability in Aston’s case

Tony Boyd: Justice Michael Lee said the nature of Blue Sky’s demise warranted the focus and comment of Joe Aston but the judge found Aston went too far in his comments on Elaine Stead.

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Defamation plaintiffs on a roll

Michael Pelly: Elaine Stead’s victory over The Australian Financial Review has continued a run of adverse judgments against media outlets.

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Justin Quill: Another day in court, another chipping away at free speech

This court decision shows that honest opinion is anything but free due to Australia’s unfair defamation laws.

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Michael Pelly: Aston’s words ‘a bridge too far’

Elaine Stead had the law on her side when she took objection to a columnist’s ‘honest’ opinion.

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Radio

Talkback radio meltdown: Announced axed after racist call encouraged

Vodafone and Kiwibank have suspended advertising on the radio station and its website as New Zealand talkback host John Banks is taken off air after yet another racist outburst, The Spinoff’s Alex Braae reports.

In an alarming segment of talkback radio, former Auckland mayor John Banks endorsed the views of a caller who described Māori as a “stone age people with a stone age culture”.

The comments have prompted major advertiser Vodafone to announce that it suspending advertising on the station.

Banks, who has also been an MP and had a long career in media, is currently filling in for Peter Williams on Magic Talk’s morning show. After the original publication of this story, a Mediaworks spokesperson subsequently gave an update that Banks would not be on air over the rest of the stint, which would instead be filled by regular night-time host Leah Panapa.

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