Not another inquiry!

Last week I sent out an email to contacts telling them about a new Government inquiry into the future of journalism. Chaired by Lord Gilbert of Panteg, chair of the House of Lords Communications and Digital Select Committee, it will investigate how the production and consumption of journalism is changing, how journalists can be supported to adapt to those changes and how the profession can become more trusted by—and representative of—the general population. Within hours I received a reply from a long standing friend of mine, Mike Jempson, who has run a media reform organisation for decades. Mike has in fact been ‘in journalism’ for some 50 years, and has been director of journalism for the ethics charity MediaWise for almost a quarter of a century. He commented in an exasperated tone: “How many more times are there going to be inquiries and the like? Since 1947 they have got us nowhere! The baleful hegemony of the owners remains the same.”

Good point and having just had the Government’s response to the Cairncross Inquiry (see my blogs  about it of 9 February 2020 and 20 February 2019) quite understandable, but it is worth reading the background paper which accompanies this call for evidence (which has to be in by 25 March 2020 and see: https://www.parliament.uk/documents/lords-committees/communications-and-digital/future-of-journalism/future-of-journalism-cfe.pdf

Here are some of the more interesting points raised by the background paper about the nature of present day journalism. It points out that: “While over 70,000 people are employed as journalists in the UK, many others engage in journalistic activities—including in related professions. Social media give individuals greater freedom to publish news and analysis themselves and make it easier for politicians to speak directly to voters.

However, this freedom can come at the expense of the external accountability and fact-checking which mediation through journalism can provide and citizen journalists may not have received the same professional and legal training. Established news brands face considerable competition from alternative sources of news and analysis online. The average national newspaper circulation has more than halved since 2010 and, as news is increasingly broken online, newspapers can rely more comment and analysis.”

Turning to publishers, it points out that they are seeking new ways to engage readers, including through journalists’ use of social media and the creation of innovative digital content. Broadcast journalism it continues “faces similar challenges as audiences decline: only half of 16–24 year-olds watch TV news compared with 94 per cent of over-65s. Journalists must learn new skills and present their work in new ways as more people get their news in a digital form.”

“In a survey by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, 70 percent of journalists reported that the intensity of their work had increased. Eighty-five per cent of journalists reported a need for an increased range of skills in the profession while around two-thirds felt that they personally needed more training. The areas in which training was most desired were the use of analytics, video editing, photo-shop, up-dated media law and data journalism.”

Some of us may also need help to adapt to the changing news media, the paper continues. “In response to a recommendation by Dame Frances Cairncross, the Government has undertaken to publish a media literacy strategy by the summer. Journalists must hold the trust of the audiences they serve in the face of scrutiny and competition on social media and other platforms as well as increased polarisation. Trust in the news fell by 11 percentage points between 2015 and 2019.”

This lack of trust in news also reflects in the lack of trust in journalists (which I have pointed to in earlier blogs). For instance A YouGov poll found that only 18 per cent of people trusted journalists to tell the truth.

As the NUJ has often pointed out, the paper reminds us that journalism, as a trade/profession, is not representative of the UK population it serves. “Only 11 per cent of journalists are from working-class backgrounds and only six per cent are not white. White university graduates from middle-class backgrounds dominate national news desks, which are based in major cities. Sixty-five per cent of journalists are employed in London and the south east, compared with 29 per cent of employees across the whole economy. Aspiring journalists without independent means face particular financial barriers. The National Council for the Training of Journalists found that 87 per cent of journalists had done work experience before going into the profession, for an average of eight weeks. Only six per cent were paid, while 21 per cent received expenses and 74 per cent were unpaid. The Sutton Trust estimates that it costs a young person at least £1,000 to do a month of unpaid work experience in London. These barriers can persist throughout a journalist’s career due to precarity of work, particularly among freelancers.”

The Sun (i.e. Murdoch) was quick to respond to the news of the inquiry saying that touched as they were by the House of Lords’ concern over journalism’s future, they wondered if they have ANY self-awareness. It continued: “Public trust in journalists has fallen,” says one peer. “The profession is not representative of the population. Excuse us? A Press read by millions is supposedly out of touch. But not unelected peers who, after failing to thwart a democratic vote, consoled themselves with an inflation-busting pay rise. Is there an institution more reviled or disconnected than the Lords itself?”

I have yet to find more sober assessments from other sections of the media, but to develop the point made by Mike at the start of this piece, if there were an award for the most parliamentary and other inquiries which failed to challenge the media landscape status quo, the plethora of handwringing investigations into the future of journalism and the press over the last seventy years would run off with the cup! Media ownership concentration is up, the power of the media owners is still feared by most politicians and remains unchallenged, despite the ‘phone hacking and related scandals of recent years.

But having said that let’s remember that journalists themselves can stand up for the trade they represent. The recent solidarity shown by lobby journalists who refused to co-operate with the changes to the way lobbying briefings were to be carried out by No.10 to reduce government accountability, shows backbone. But No 10’s grip on news management extends to limiting access to photographers. The NUJ’s Photographers’ Council has joined colleagues in condemning Downing Street’s recent attempts to control images of major state events, by excluding press photographers and issuing state-approved photographs of the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile in case you had forgotten, Lord Gilbert wants our comments to his inquiry by 25 March and there will be public sessions from March to June 2020 to hear verbal evidence. His report will be published in the summer. As for the Government, they have agreed to respond in writing to select committee reports, but no timescale is set down.

And having mentioned accountability, the government inspired attacks on the BBC is just another way of reducing their accountability to us. These are but the curtain raiser in what will be a long fight with the BBC. The BBC has its faults which must be addressed, but Johnson and his friends are out to marginalise public service broadcasting and see it replaced by a Fox News equivalent, as favoured by Dominic Cummings Boris Johnson’s most powerful adviser. Cummings was the director of the New Frontiers Foundation when it called in 2004 for a campaign to target the BBC and the creation of a Fox News equivalent that would not be constrained by impartiality rules. I don’t think he has changed his mind!

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