The Cairncross Review – can it reverse the decline of local and regional press?

In March the Government commissioned the Cairncross Review to look into the sustainability of high-quality journalism, and threats to journalism, brought about by technological change and consumer behaviour. The Review headed by chairwoman Frances Cairncross, said: “This review is not about preserving the status quo. We meed to explore ways in which we can ensure that consumers in 10 years time have access to high-quality journalism which meets their needs, is delivered in the way they want, and supports democratic engagement.”

To do this she recruited an 11 strong advisory panel, which was sharply criticised by the NUJ whose General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet said on 12 March: “Today the Culture Secretary announced the review is to be headed by Dame Frances Cairncross and has named the panel. None of those named represent journalists on the ground who can explain exactly the effect of the present troubles in the industry are having on their ability to produce quality journalism and connect with their communities. We hope Matt Hancock can ensure that the journalist’s voice is heard during the process.”

To make matters worse, as Roy Greenslade pointed out in his article in The Guardian on 1 July ‘Last chance to fill in the blanks on funding journalism future’; “the panel includes publishers who have been responsible for journalism’s deterioration, and who have a vested interested in making profits rather than aiding democracy.”

The Review and its terms of reference were also attacked by Brian Cathcart writing in the Inforrm Blog on 31 March as; “ …little more than a device to help him (the Culture Secretary) justify giving fresh public subsidies to his friends and supporters in the corporate press.” He continued: “Far more likely is that he wants the review to propose some kind of tax and to help him sell the idea to the public and in Parliament by providing a winning rationale in the form of dire warnings about the plight of ‘high-quality journalism’. So let’s be clear: any money raised as tax is public money – our money – and the idea that this might find its way into the pockets of Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, the Barclay brothers or the people who run the Mirror and Express is unacceptable. (See https://inforrm.org/2018/03/31/the-cairncross-review-its-about-subsidising-the-press-brian-cathcart/#more-39637 )

Some three months later the Culture Department published the results of its 90 page investigation (the Mediatique report) as background material for the Review, which found that surprise surprise: “The number of frontline print journalists has dropped by more than a quarter – from 23,000 in 2007 to 17,000 in 2017 – and circulation and print advertising revenues have dropped by more than half over the same period.” And again Culture Secretary Matt Hancock said he was particularly troubled by the movement of local and classified advertising to online, which has contributed to the closure of more than 300 local and regional titles since 2007 – raising the prospect (already a reality for many) of communities being left without local news provision. Circulation of regional and local newspapers was also down in the same period by 51% from 63.4m to 31.4m.

The NUJ and many other media commentators have been banging on about this for years, so can we influence the Cairncross agenda? After all, following publication of the Mediatique report at the end of June, Frances Cairncross said that: “This review is not about preserving the status quo, We need to explore ways in which we can ensure that consumers in 10 years time have access to high-quality journalism which meets their needs, is delivered in the way they want, and supports democratic engagement. This call for evidence enables all those with an interest to contribute their knowledge and views so we can build the evidence and make impactful recommendations to move forward.” (By the way ‘impactful’ emerged in the 1960s as an adjective meaning “manifesting a great effect or impact” in case you did not know!)

It’s a shame she has only allowed a couple of months for people to submit evidence (closing date is 7 September) given that August is a holiday month. It would have made more sense to have at least a three month period for public consultation if we are to take her and the review seriously. And given the serious debates there have been in the past around the questions of remedies for market failures, selective subsidies, and other forms of market interventions, I would have thought a much longer period for a wide public debate was necessary, otherwise the running will be made by the press publishers who will only promote policies in their own commercial interests. So just how credible will  this review be?

We all know the problems, including the increasing concentration of press ownership locally and regionally, what about possible solutions? Many press publishers see Cairncross as a way of taxing the highly profitable internet companies such as Facebook and Google and shoving the money their way. But would this ensure that the public get access to high-quality journalism, which in the words of Cairncross: “meets their needs, is delivered in the way they want and supports democratic engagement”? in addition to the question of increasing ownership concentration, there is also the serious of question of the public’s trust in journalism which needs to be addressed.

As I wrote in my blog on 17 May ‘UK news media least trusted’ a report published by the US Pew Research Centre http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2018/05/10185248/PJ_2018.05.14_Western-Europe_FINAL.pdf found that less than half the adults in the UK say that the news media is doing a good job at getting the facts right, the worst trustworthiness rate in Western Europe! The report was published at the same time as the House of Commons rejected the call to hold part two of the Leveson Inquiry into the conduct of the medial. This would have covered a number of new provisions including an investigation into the dissemination of information and news, and false news stories. Now although this report may mostly refer to national news coverage, some of this spills over into the regional and local press, and taken with the decline of readers in these categories, these publications must improve their standards, reverse the cuts and widen their coverage to improve their public service obligations, if they are to reverse these trends.

One recent attempt to improve local news gathering was the decision of government to force the BBC via the licence fee, to fund 150 ‘local democracy reporters’. This form of subsidy goes to the very media owners who in the past failed to invest in the future of local news, putting profits before good quality journalism, and shareholders interests before the public interest. They are only too happy to take advantage of the scheme and are even thought to be lobbying for more (while BBC budgets are cut back)! However, it is unlikely that this will lead to any increase in advertising revenue to the press which has fallen by half over the past decade. Although often protesting in the past that public subsidy was a threat to press freedom, media owners themselves threaten that very freedom by putting profits first!

If one accepts that public subsidy is necessary to save local news from further decline, questions about just what sort of models we should  look to for guidance, who should get such support and under what terms are questions that Cairncross should examine, as are the points made by Brian Cathcart and Roy Greenslade quoted earlier.

In the past NUJ has called for an economic stimulus plan for journalism with action aimed at encouraging a variety of voices across all platforms, a greater plurality, maximised through a combination of different models – commercial, public, mutual, employee, co-operative, for profit and not for profit. New media could be stimulated through public support in the form of start-up grants, subsidised technology or training grants, solutions driven by journalists and communities themselves – online radio, broadband TV print and online. This would be supported by tax breaks for local media who meet clearly defined public purposes (journalism as a service to the public) and tax credits for individuals subscribing to publications that meet such public purposes . Clear and enforceable conditions need to be applied that safeguard the production of original content in the public interest. There are already a number of local innovatory initiatives like Bureau Local, a collaborative, investigative  journalism network producing local, data driven, public interest journalism to support, reinvigorate and innovate accountability reporting across the UK (see Gareth Davies ‘The story is in the numbers’, British Journalism Review June 2018). These ideas need to be seriously examined by Cairncross.

But in the end it all comes down to having the political will to make the changes that are necessary to recreate journalism as a public service and to create better media not based on failed market models, but ones which hold power to account and empower citizens to participate more fully in society. And don’t forget you have got until 7 September to send your views to Cairncross!

Stop Press: Since writing this piece I’ve noticed that the Welsh Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee published a report in May on funding public interest journalism: http://www.assembly.wales/laid%20documents/cr-ld11544/cr-ld11544-e.pdf

In the foreword to the report Bethan Sayed AM Chair said: “We recognise that there is no simple solution to how best we address this issue in Wales. However, we are convinced that this is a profound public policy issue, which policy makers at all levels, not least the Welsh Government, need to address as a priority issue.” Wales of course, shares many of the serious problems faced in the rest of the UK,  a similar crisis, just on a smaller scale. The report’s recommendations include  that the Welsh Government should formally support public interest journalism,  consider establishing publicly funded arm’s length news hubs and nurture and encourage the hyperlocal sector as a way of encouraging new entrants to the market and supporting innovative approaches to the provision of local news journalism.

The report has been welcomed by the NUJ, who gave evidence to the committee and Cairncross should seriously consider a number of the eighteen recommendations in it for wider application.

 

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