The Cairncross Review, which is published today, finds journalism in deep trouble and suggests that Government intervention is required to save it. It is right to do so.
The report finds that: “Support for public-interest news providers is particularly urgent and justified. In the immediate future, government should look to plug the local gap to ensure the continued supply of local democracy reporting.”
It goes on: “Given the evidence of a market failure in the supply of public-interest news, public intervention may be the only remedy,” the report concludes.
The problem lies in the reorganisation of advertising, which is no longer interested in supporting news, because it can get to customers so much more easily through the direct use of targeted advertising, organised by the major platforms: Google, Facebook and Amazon.
Dame Francis Cairncross, an economist and former journalist, found that news organisations, in order to compete for the crumbs, left over after the platforms have fattened themselves, have been forced to debase their own products by producing ever more frivolous stories in order to attract the momentary attention of audiences. But, as she rightly observed, even the production of “clickbait” to increase the number of readers, has not increased advertising funding enough to allow news organisations to invest in the kind of public service journalism that any democracy requires in order to survive.
The problem is most serious at local level where newspapers, which used to attract the bulk of local advertising, now struggle to pay journalists. The creeping loss of local journalism means that local government is increasingly free of any kind of regular scrutiny. Government that is allowed to operate without monitoring is hard to describe as genuinely democratic.
Her solutions are not going to transform the situation overnight, some are rather vague recommendations for codes of conduct between Internet platforms and news-providers, but they do offer a welcome framework for action. The key proposals are:
An Institute for Public Interest News: an independent body, funded by the Government and the platforms, which would administer and distribute funds to local news providers. This is similar to suggestions made by the Media Reform Coalition and would build on the work already being done by the BBC to fund news reporters working directly with local newspapers.
An Innovation Fund: innovation in the news sector tends to mean using data in ways which cut down costs for news organisations. Since the major cost of any news organisation is the employment of journalists this kind of innovation needs to be treated with some caution. It seems likely that this will soon be folded into the Institute for Public Interest News.
Tax changes and changes in charity law to provide a measure of additional subsidy and a welcome change in charity law so that news organisations might in future be able to register as charities and attract funding.
A review of online advertising. The rise of programmatic advertising has been both swift and opaque. It is plagued with mis-selling scandals and dependent on the misuse of personal data for targeting. Sadly this is coupled with a recommendation that platforms should be compelled to share data on readers ’behaviour. There is already a growing public resistance to the use of private data for attracting advertising. It would have been far more useful to demand that private data should no longer be used for the targeting of advertising at all, by anyone.
Cairncross rightly decided against obliging platforms to pre-vet content because it would mean that the Internet ceased to be a medium of instantaneous connection. She does recommend that there should be a news quality obligation on the platforms to be monitored by the new regulator. Although, given that she steadfastly declines to provide any definition of news quality, it is quite hard to see what this actually means.
The only suggestion that is really not needed is yet another Ofcom investigation of the BBC. This was almost certainly a sop to the larger local newspaper publishers who constantly complain that the BBC, by providing an online news service, undermines their provision of commercial news. Any suggestion that the BBC, which is a public service, should be forced to curtail its activities in order to make way for a failing commercial service should be resisted. The BBC belongs to the people of the United Kingdom. It is our last resort at a time of massive change in the world of commercial news. To undermine it at the very moment it is most needed would be sheer folly.