Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Quick reaction to NZME/Fairfax

Back in June I wrote a piece - 'Howzat!?' - on the likely outcome of the two appeals against Commerce Commission decisions that were live at the time, Skyfone, and NZME/Fairfax.

And I finished up saying
We can't see everything - there's a wholly blacked-out bit in paragraph 19(c), for example, in the 'Natural justice and fairness' section of the NZME / Fairfax appeal - but on what we can see, what are the umpires likely to do with these appeals?
I'll be surprised if I see the Commission trudging back to the pavilion.
I won't be dashing off to the TAB to exploit my newly discovered tipping skills, because, to be fair, it wasn't a hard call. You had unacceptably high post-merger levels of concentration in some markets, and little realistic prospect of divestments as a remedy: the market for Old Media assets isn't exactly thriving at the moment. And the appellants were asking the court to ignore or downweight a stonking great albeit qualitative detriment, loss of media plurality. The Commission didn't win on everything, but it was in my view at short odds-on with the bookies on the overall yay/nay outcome.

We, the general public, haven't got the full decision yet - as I write there's only a media release from the court and an extract from the decision summary - but there are two things I'll be especially interested in when we do get it.

One is the discussion around qualitative things like the value of media plurality in a democracy, and whether, and to what extent, and how, they should be included in the benefits and detriments balancing. My answers would be yes they should, as completely as possible (I quite liked this Aussie court's approach), and ideally with whatever numbers you can put on it.

There may be companies thinking that mergers have just got a lot harder if they've got to allow for all this airy-fairy social impact stuff on the detriment side. I wouldn't see it that way: it also opens up the opportunity for companies to argue qualitative payoffs on the benefit side. In 'new economy' sectors, for example, I could see companies successfully arguing, who knows what sort of blue-sky benefits might emerge from bringing two sets of research talent together.

The other thing that caught my eye in the court's press release was that the court "dismissed the prospect of one of the appellants introducing a pay wall for their online publication, post a merger". That sounds like a finding of fact. But even if the merger had actually enabled a pay wall, and NZME/Fairfax consequently decided to introduce one, I can't see that as much of a detriment. It seems to me that's a completely normal development in online media: consumers mightn't like it, but I don't have an issue with media charging readers for valuable content. I can even see a logic that without the paywall, there might not be valuable content in the first place.

Speaking of content quality, the press release also said that "The Court found the Commission was also entitled to place significant weight on the prospect of reduced quality of the products produced by the merged entity".

Live by clickbait, die by clickbait.

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