Earlier this month Brian Cathcart, author and long standing campaigner for media reform, wrote an article in The Byline Times questioning why The Guardian had joined the deal negotiated with the Government by the News Media Association (NMA). In return for publishing Government advertorial newspapers shared out £35 million in the ‘All In, All Together’ deal. You can read the article at: https://bylinetimes.com/2020/06/05/why-is-the-guardian-accepting-a-dodgy-subsidy-from-this-dodgy-government/
Brian’s article asks reasonable questions about the newspaper’s participation in the Government three month advertising package and it is a pity that The Guardian appear to have not responded to all of them, more especially about its understanding of the character of the scheme, and the near exclusion of the independents from it. But then having taken the money maybe they won’t want to be critical of the scheme?
He is right to be extremely critical of the scheme itself and to highlight the NUJ’s news recovery plan published in April 2020 which is now being taken up by the union with the Government and the opposition parties. He is also right to point to where the money (£35m for government advertising) has ended up, or rather where it has not! The lack of financial support for the independent sector and local hyper-locals is appalling. But then look at where most of the local democracy reporters funded out of the licence fee but employed by regional news organisations have ended up: Reach Plc has 64.5 reporters; Newsquest 38.5 and JPI Media Ltd 36.5. Just a handful went to the independent sector.
In addition, the scheme itself lacks transparency. Just what were the criteria for the distribution of funds and who got what and why? These questions the Government has yet to fully answer (evasion is something they are very good at).
It’s worth mentioning that in mid-May the Public Interest News Foundation (supported by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust) launched an Emergency Fund to support independent news providers. All grants are a maximum of £3,000 and applications closed on 2 June. Good intent but small change compared to the millions handed out by the Government.
Before the pandemic, the printed press was in financial crisis. The situation is much worse now with the collapse of advertising revenue, estimated by some to be around 80%. Sales are also well down, although we no longer know the circulation figures, as in May it was announced by the Audit Bureau of Circulations that newspapers will no longer have their sales figures automatically published.
There will be some sort of recovery as the economy picks up, but I doubt it will return to pre- pandemic levels. This crisis will be used as justification by most media owners to sack further staff and streamline production to protect the bottom line, shareholders profits. News UK says that it will cut jobs at the Times and Sun as part of a major cost-cutting exercise and ‘resetting’ exercise (report in The Guardian 12 June 2020). I call it a ‘culling’.
Which brings me back to The Guardian. I’m a regular reader and like my feelings towards the BBC, I am a critical friend. I don’t agree with everything in it or its editorial stance and opinions on a number of issues past (Labour and Jeremy Corbyn for example) and present. But it’s coverage of the pandemic both nationally and internationally has been comprehensive and detailed. It worked (with the Mirror) against the odds to bring us the story of the Cummings’ flight to Durham and Barnard Castle. Amelia Gentleman continues to do a fantastic job in exposing the Windrush scandal. In the wake of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, of which The Guardian has been a strong supporter, it’s worth pointing out that The Manchester Guardian (its original title) was founded in 1821 by cotton merchant John Edward Taylor and his friends, with money linked to the brutal treatment of enslaved black women and men who had been transported from West Africa to work themselves to death on American plantations. Being on the wrong side of history is something The Guardian should explain, whilst rightly exposing others in its columns.
It also has a very good and seemingly well-resourced web site, free from any pay-wall. Each time you read a Guardian story on line you are reminded that. “…We have upheld our editorial independence in the face of the disintegration of traditional media – with social platforms giving rise to misinformation, the seemingly unstoppable rise of big tech and independent voices being squashed by commercial ownership. The Guardian’s independence means we can set our own agenda and voice our own opinions. Our journalism is free from commercial and political bias – never influenced by billionaire owners or shareholders. This makes us different. It means we can challenge the powerful without fear and give a voice to those less heard.
Of course in taking the government’s money The Guardian must be seen not to compromise these high principles (which are absent from most of the mainstream press, who are cheer leaders for the Johnson government), and I have felt disappointments in the past, especially over The Guardian’s decision to destroy the computer hard drives containing copies of some of the secret files leaked by Edward Snowden in July 2013 after a threat of legal action by the Coalition Government. It was not an easy decision, I understand that (and there were copies in the US and elsewhere). But despite this, the paper continued to consult with the UK government before publishing national security stories. The Guardian itself reported that there were more than 100 interactions with No 10, the White House and US and UK intelligence agencies.
However, given the current political loyalties and state of most of the mainstream press we should offer The Guardian our critical support, not give comfort to those who would be only too pleased to see it close. Such calls for closure have come from those on the political right (and maybe elsewhere). A petition was launched recently by novelist and journalist Tony Parsons, who tweeted: ‘Shameful links to slave-owning Confederate south. Built on the profits of cotton fields. Shut down The Guardian Newspaper.’
So what of the future? In launching the NUJ’s recovery plan Brian highlighted in his article, Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, has set out a bold set of measures and interventions to support and protect jobs and good quality journalism. Of the plan she said:
“This is not and cannot be about the preservation of the status quo. The emergency intervention needed now can only be the first steps towards a news reimagined. We need a triage plan of intervention and investment. That will involve action to stem the immediate damage being wrought, and longer-term measures to heal historic wounds. Our aim is to create a healthy diverse press, focussed squarely on the public good, one that can be sustained now and into the future. That’s why we want governmental commitments to a range of actions – some immediate and some when the worst of this crisis is over – that will create a news industry firmly rooted in the public interest journalism which will deepen public engagement in our democratic structures.”
Trust in news in the UK is among the lowest in the world, according to The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism Digital News Report 2020. It found that overall trust in the media continues to fall globally, while just 28% of people in the UK said they trust “most news most of the time”, according to a poll in January, down from 40% in January 2019. Any public campaign to get a better media is going to be an uphill struggle, but then what isn’t these days? And isn’t the media there to hold power to account!
You can read the NUJ report at: https://www.nuj.org.uk/news/nuj-launches-news-recovery-plan/