When the then culture secretary, Matt Hancock, first announced a government review of the future of “high-quality” journalism, there was widespread scepticism about his motives. Having just surrendered to a powerful press lobby in abandoning the Leveson recommendations on self-regulation, was this government making an honest attempt to resolve the growing and serious problem of journalism’s broken business model?
Certainly Dame Frances Cairncross, entrusted with the task, had a reputation for being fiercely independent and forensic – but the “expert panel” appointed to advise her contained a disproportionate number of old school press types who were accustomed to winning concessions.
In fact, the Cairncross Review has produced some innovative and potentially exciting ideas which – if properly and independently implemented – could genuinely deliver more diverse, high-quality public interest journalism, particularly at the local level where it is desperately needed. But it will require political will to resist a powerful print lobby motivated by corporate self interest, and avoidance of at least two dangerous bear traps.
Perhaps surprisingly, Dame Frances resisted calls for a tough regulatory framework for the online tech companies that are mostly responsible for the collapse of journalism’s advertising-funded business model. She advocates only “regulatory supervision” to ensure that online distribution platforms monitor reliability of news sources, alongside a media literacy strategy to help users navigate their way around content origination and news sources (some of us call it “media studies”). Beyond that, two proposals stand out: for funding and for distribution of funds.
First, Cairncross recommends a new “innovation” fund of £10m per year which should “work closely” with Google and Facebook on sustainable business approaches. She also proposes two forms of tax relief to promote public interest journalism: removing VAT on digital subscriptions – a no-brainer, since hard copy publications are already exempt – and finding ways of extending charitable status to non-profit publishers, who could then enjoy the significant tax advantages. This was originally canvassed by the Lords Communications Committee in 2012 and has since been promoted by many academics and civil society groups.
Second, and at the heart of this review, is the proposal for a new Institute for Public Interest News which would forge partnerships with publishers and platforms, distribute revenue, commission research and presumably – though this is not made explicit – monitor output to ensure compliance with public interest objectives and accountability for public money.
Cairncross stresses the fundamental importance of a governance structure that should be “carefully designed to ensure complete freedom from any obligations, political or commercial”. Anyone familiar with the Leveson structure of press self-regulation will appreciate the emphasis on complete freedom from industry and government influence for any organisation tasked with monitoring journalism, let alone defining “public interest news”.
The Press Recognition Panel (PRP) which was set up in the wake of Leveson to audit press self-regulators was established on precisely that premise. In fact, Cairncross cites the carefully constructed PRP appointments process as a potential model for her institute, and there is no reason why the PRP itself could not be reengineered as her institute.
So what are the bear traps? Inevitably, given the press industry’s eternal whinge about the BBC “crowding out” commercial news providers, Cairncross finds it necessary to acknowledge those complaints while making it clear she actually thinks the BBC is providing precisely the kind of high-quality news across platforms that democracy (and the public) demands.
She felt compelled, however, to recommend that Ofcom should assess BBC online content and confirm “appropriate boundaries for [its] future direction”. We can therefore expect an Ofcom review, and a systematic lobbying campaign by the News Media Association (NMA) – the powerful press lobbying group – echoing The Sun’s self-serving editorial this week: “The BBC’s ever-expanding online news empire has been calamitous for local papers in particular … [and] must not be allowed to crowd out and destroy commercial rivals with coverage far beyond its remit.” We will be relying on Ofcom to stand up to newspaper bullies and defend the public interest.
Second, Cairncross recommends an expansion of the BBC-funded Local Democracy Service which currently pays for 144 reporter contracts with local publishers. Because the scheme was dreamt up in conjunction with the NMA, the big three regional groups – Newsquest, JPIMedia (formerly Johnston Press) and Reach plc (formerly Trinity Mirror) – have hoovered up the vast majority of those contracts, leaving just a handful for the smaller independent and hyperlocal sectors. Thus, £8m of licence payers’ money is effectively subsidising three very large regional publishing groups without any oversight or accountability, while those publishers are simultaneously making their own journalists redundant.
From the beginning, the LDS scheme has been a seriously flawed exercise, and it’s clear that Cairncross understands both the deliberate marginalisation of smaller publishers and the risk of expanding the scheme without major changes. She describes the BBC’s own evaluation as “fairly light touch” (a euphemism for barely existent) and recommends “a careful independent review.”
In the longer term, she sees the whole LDS scheme being handed to the new institute, which would ensure both transparency and genuinely independent scrutiny. It could also generate additional funding from platforms, foundations and even government, and would alleviate the risk of further money being appropriated from a cash-strapped BBC.
Risk and reward
Ultimately, the usefulness of this review will stand or fall on whether the government is willing to face down a press lobby which is accustomed to flexing its muscles and – as the Leveson enquiry graphically demonstrated – has successfully bullied successive UK governments for decades. Cairncross fully understands the fundamental importance not only of public interest news, but of a wholly independent scrutiny body responsible for interpreting the remit, distributing funds and monitoring output.
Whether it is her institute, a beefed-up PRP, or some other incarnation is less important than its insulation from any political interference and – crucially – independence from an industry which will be intent on wrenching back control.
It won’t be easy, but the public benefit rewards for getting it right will be incalculable.
The Conversation’s deputy editor Jo Adetunji was a member of the Carincross Review Advisory Panel.