May you live in interesting times is a purported Chinese saying which can be taken as an expression of good wishes but contains, on reflection, a curse for an uncertain or troubled future.

While the saying has been in wide use by English speakers in the modern world there is no real evidence that the Chinese ever created such a double-edged epithet.

That said, Australians are continuing to live in ‘interesting times’ created by the depredations of the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

Although there are encouraging indications that the immediate health dangers of the virus which allegedly emanated from China a few short months ago may be on the wane, we face serious economic and social uncertainties because of the impact of the disease on our economy and our community life.

The urgent and costly responses by Australian state and federal government to COVID-19 have generally been widely welcomed, but we know that the times ahead may be difficult and depressing for millions of ordinary Australians whose lives have suddenly taken a turn for the worse.

The unprecedented circumstances faced by the nation have led to the government making some extraordinary policy changes in an effort to ensure that we, as a nation, can emerge and rebuild businesses, jobs, community life and normal interpersonal relationships as quickly as possible.

Changes to a wide range of practices, policies and habits have been implemented in our society to a degree that would not have been imagined a few short months ago.

Governments have been producing new policies on an almost daily basis that are bold and timely and these may, or may not, persist in the longer term.

The new boldness was evident this week when the Federal Government decided that action was needed to help preserve the role of our traditional media in the life of the nation.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has been instructed to produce a code of conduct to ensure that traditional broadcasters and print media are not further disadvantaged in seeking to conduct their businesses as news, information and advertising providers in this country in the face of unfair competitive intrusions into the Australian market by large digital social media companies such as Google and Facebook.

The government has acted to ensure the survival of traditional national news media services at a time when the coronavirus has led to a further disastrous undermining of advertising revenue sources which enable traditional newspapers and broadcasters to fund the costly expense of news gathering and reporting.

In recent years the global-spanning digital social media giants have uplifted news content from traditional newspapers and broadcasters, while vacuuming up the lions’ share of advertising dollars in Australia.

The result has been the diminution in the ability of large news organisations to gather and report news and information in a competitive environment.

In addition, the lifting of content from traditional news organisations, without recompense or adherence to the responsibilities normally held by the ‘fourth estate’ in news gathering and reporting within the guidelines of industry standards and accountability, has begun to pose a real and present threat to the right of Australians to enjoy access to a free, diverse and competitive institution which has helped protect and sustain our democracy for more than a century.

Lengthy negotiations between representatives of traditional Australian media bodies and the large digital corporations have not produced a settlement of the problem.

The government announced this week via the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg and the Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, Paul Fletcher, that it has decided to act to preserve the Australian media industry as an integral part of the national fabric.

The importance of a local, free press, to the maintenance and preservation of the basic elements of our democracy has been recognised by government.

The ACCC has been instructed to adopt a mandatory code of conduct to ensure that digital giants operate within a competitive framework with traditional media forms in Australia and that such a code contains provision for the global platforms to pay for content which, up to now, has been lifted without permission or recompense from the traditional news providers.

Local newspapers and broadcasters have welcomed the government’s announced action which should see a new draft code produced by the end of July.

Australia, it seems, driven to action by the inroads of both global media platforms and the coronavirus, has announced a policy direction intended to preserve traditional forms of media which many other nations around the globe in which traditional media has been placed in difficult circumstances seem set to follow.

Interesting times, indeed!

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