Almost a year after it was published, the government has finally responded the recommendations of Dame Frances Cairncross’s review into the sustainability of the UK news industry (see my 20 February 2019 blog at: http://thespark.me.uk/?p=1074 ) . Whilst accepting most of the recommendations, it rejected the proposal to create an Institute for Public Interest News as part of proposals to support the news industry. In a statement Culture Secretary Baroness Morgan indicated that the Government was not taking forward the recommendation for the establishment of an Institute for Public Interest News as it did Government not wish to have a role in defining what is ‘public interest’ news as this risked interference with the freedom of the press.
It also rejected proposals to extend charitable status to many struggling local news outlets, saying it would not be appropriate because they would be banned from supporting political parties, stopped from being for-profit, and much journalism does not work “only for the public benefit”
In a statement released at the same time Baroness Morgan said: “At the heart of any thriving democracy is a free and vibrant press.
“Its role in holding power to account and keeping the public informed of local, national and international issues is vital, and yet in this country its future is under threat.”
The government is now committed to review how online advertising is regulated and is seeking views on the problems, as well as the benefits, that the rise of online advertising has brought for people and businesses, including news publishers. This work will complement and supplement other relating reviews, including work by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) a non-ministerial government department, responsible for strengthening business competition and preventing and reducing anti-competitive activities; the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. The call for evidence runs for 8 weeks between 27 January and 23 March (see: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/online-advertising-call-for-evidence ).
Resulting from its response, the Government has
- Committed to take forward work on the recommendation to create codes of conduct to rebalance and redefine the relationships between news publishers and online platforms, in alignment with wider work on digital regulation. This would help ensure journalists in the UK are fairly treated and rewarded for their content.
- Confirmed that the world-leading proposals for a new regulatory framework set out in the Online Harms White Paper should lead to platforms doing more to help people identify the reliability and trustworthiness of online news sources. (In response to the call for online platforms’ efforts to improve users’ news experiences to be placed under regulatory supervision.)
- Progressed work on developing a new online media literacy strategy, with plans to publish this in the summer.
- Established the £2 million pilot Future News Fund, run by Nesta (in response to the recommendation for a new fund focused on innovations to improve the supply of public-interest news, to be run by an independent body). The fund will invest in new technological prototypes, start-ups and innovative business models to explore new ways of sustaining the press in a changing landscape.
- The Treasury will consider the case for a range of potential tax incentives to support the news publishing industry this year, including policy options on VAT, notwithstanding recent litigation in this area. The Government has also announced formally today that it is extending the £1,500 business rates discount for office space occupied by local newspapers in England for an additional five years, until 31 March 2025, as part of its efforts to support local and regional journalism.
Henry Faure Walker, chair of the industry lobby group News Media Association, said he was “disappointed at the lack of clear financial commitment by the government to implement the recommendations”, warning that the new innovation fund appears to be bypassing traditional local news publishers.
He concluded that: “Without swift and significant market intervention now, the flow of independent, high-quality local news and information which is essential for the functioning of our democracy can no longer be guaranteed.”
Meanwhile the NUJ condemned the government’s response to the Cairncross Review recommendations as a wasted opportunity to address the crisis facing local journalism.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “The Cairncross Review demonstrated the stark challenges facing journalism, and the NUJ welcomed its recommendations as a unique opportunity to address the deepening crisis and take action to stem the damage being done to our democracy. This tardy response from the government, jettisoning an Institute for Public Interest News on spurious grounds, fails to acknowledge the scale of the crisis in the media industry and demonstrates a lack of vision when it comes to implementing meaningful solutions.
Refusing to open up charitable status as a business model is also short-sighted – whilst it may not suit the needs of some major publishers, it would have provided an opportunity for many smaller and new entries into the industry who are committed to the provision of quality public interest news. The response fails to address the need to bolster diverse and sustainable journalism in the UK. Calling for the BBC to fork out even more from the licence fee we pay for our public service broadcaster is not a solution to the problems the industry faces – this ‘more of the same’ approach is simply not going to cut it.”
The full NUJ response may be found at: https://www.nuj.org.uk/news/cairncross-govt-reaction/