The ABC is reportedly close to signing a deal with Google to have its journalism included in the tech giant’s news platform. But former staff of the public broadcaster say any commercial deals with Google or Facebook creates an “unacceptable risk”.

A “lucrative” deal between the ABC and Google is “imminent” according to industry sources. Which-50 has confirmed discussions between the broadcaster and Google are ongoing but an ABC spokesperson declined to comment further.

The potential deal presents an opportunity for the broadcaster to recoup millions of dollars after years of coalition government budget cuts have forced it to slash programs and staff.

But the new revenue source and the conditions that may come with it set a dangerous precedent for the public broadcaster and leads it down the road of privatisation, according to ABC Alumni, a group of former ABC staff and production contractors.

At the 11th-hour, ABC Alumni is calling on their former employer to withdraw from any commercial negotiations with Google and Facebook to avoid compromising its independence.

Doing deals

Faced with being forced into independent arbitration, Google has signed a flurry of deals with Australian and global publishers to pay for news content on its terms, using a licencing model known as Google News Showcase

While Google has declined to say how much it has budgeted for Australia under its $1.3 billion global news initiative, the local deals are believed to be significant – a reported $30 million a year for Nine, for example.

Google also insists publishers involved with News Showcase would retain their independence and control over the stories being included. That is important for Australian publishers, as noted by Guardian Australia, which reported it would retain control over “when and what Guardian stories are presented to readers in Showcase, and will have more control over how stories are presented in story panels in Google News”.

 The ABC will likely negotiate similar oversight. The Australian government has also cleared the ABC to keep the extra funds to spend as it sees fit, with the national broadcaster indicating it will use them to boost regional journalism.

But it still risks compromising its charter by dealing with the US tech giant, according to ABC Alumni.

“… 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 future federal government to demand more commerciality, not less,” the group said in a statement on Monday.

“ABC commercial deals for revenue in the evolving digital economy will only soften up the ABC for privatisation, an objective pushed by those fundamentally hostile to a public broadcaster or “cybercaster”.”

The group says the ABC must be funded as a public good and funding should be truly independent, free from commercial agendas.

 News Media Chagrin

Spurring the deals between Google and Australian publishers is the looming News Media Bargaining Code. The proposed media laws would force Facebook and Google to negotiate with publishers and, when deals can not be struck, enter into best offer final arbitration, something the tech giants say creates an unacceptable risk.  

Google has struck deals with publishers, likely sparing it from the harshest aspects of the code at least until the agreements expire. Facebook, though, has pulled news content from Australian users to avoid any risk – a clumsy process that saw several government agencies, emergency services and civil society groups also removed from the platform.

The social media giant makes the point it is fundamentally different from Google in that publishers choose to put their content on its platform while Google crawls the internet to surface publishers content in its search results.

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