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NUJ response to the Cairncross Review

© Mark Thomas

12 February 2019

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary said:

"Dame Frances Cairncross’s report is an important piece of work which charts the demise of local journalism, the cuts to newsrooms and the loss of titles largely because of the move to digital, with people reading their news on the tech giants’ platforms, and the draining of advertising revenue to Facebook and Google. The tax concessions and other measures she recommends are to be welcomed, but I hope this has not been a missed opportunity. 
"An institute for public interest news is an interesting idea, which recognises the market’s failure in providing public interest journalism, and an innovation fund looking at new models to redress this is welcome.

"But letting the tech giants off the hook sidesteps the real issues of how they get a free ride with the content they suck up online and disseminate on their platforms. We wish Dame Cairncross had been braver in making Facebook and Google responsible for the news they exploit.

"Seeing the BBC served up once again as a bogeyman and convenient cash cow is also an affront to the vital role of public service broadcasting in our democracy and its massive contribution to the broader creative industries. The BBC already funds the local democracy reporter scheme and its technical innovations such as the iPlayer led the way and has been used by other broadcasters. It’s a nonsense to suggest that BBC online has destroyed local newspapers – as the report says, the newspaper groups went on costly acquisition sprees before the market collapsed in the late 2000s and then cut investment and sacked hundreds of journalists to maintain profit margins. BBC Online is a trusted and much-used source of news, it is not the problem here and its future must not be imperilled. The NUJ supports the development of a media literacy strategy and the union can play an important role in that. We will now look at the details of the report and respond in due course.”

In a Parliamentary debate on the review, Jeremy Wright, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, responded to some of the recommendation’s made by Dame Frances. He said he had written to:

  • the Competition and Markets Authority to conduct a market study of the digital advertising market and has also written to former Obama advisor Professor Jason Furman who has been asked by the government to examine digital competition in UK. The minister said: “I recognise that online advertising has given rise to a wider set of social and economic challenges, and my Department will therefore conduct a review of the way in which online advertising is regulated.”
  • Ofcom to assess whether “BBC News Online is striking the right balance between aiming for the widest reach for its own content…and driving traffic from its online site to commercial publishers (particularly local ones)”.
  • the Charity Commission to see if organisations promoting public interest and investigative journalism could benefit from charitable status.
  • the Treasury about the report’s proposal of an extension of the current scope of VAT exemptions so that they apply to online payments for all news content, not simply print news content, and a new tax relief for public interest news providers.
He said: “The other recommendation that I want to highlight is the call for the creation of new codes of conduct between publishers and the online platforms that distribute their content. The codes would cover issues relating to the indexing of content on platforms and its presentation, as well as the need for warning of algorithm changes likely to affect a publisher. Their development would be overseen by a regulator. The review also proposes that regulatory oversight be introduced as part of a “news quality obligation”, requiring platforms to improve the way in which their users understand the origin of an article of news and the trustworthiness of its source. Dame Frances recognises that platforms are already starting to accept responsibility in that regard. Those two proposals deserve the government's full consideration, and we will think about how they can inform our approach."

The government is looking at how it can develop a media literacy strategy, and digital minister Margot James had already set up a roundtable with stakeholders, including the NUJ, to look at the issue.  Read Michelle Stanistreet's column in NUJ Informed on media literacy.

Jeremy Wright noted that the review had praised the BBC as a “source of reliable and high-quality news, with a focus on objectivity and impartiality, and independent from government”. He said he would be looking to expand the local democracy reporters’ scheme set up by the BBC and News Media Association.

During the debate Liz Saville-Roberts, Plaid Cymru MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, said:

“I rise as the chair of the cross-party group for the National Union of Journalists and as a former local newspaper reporter for the Caernarfon and Denbigh Herald and the Holyhead and Anglesey Mail. Let us face facts: it is not the BBC that is closing local papers or debate on local democracy. The Cambrian News has been a vital source of news for almost 160 years in mid-Wales. There is a responsibility there for Government to maintain that tradition. The recommended tax relief measures are welcome, but does the Secretary of State not agree that by making Facebook and Google pay for the journalist content they use, he would be taking a first pragmatic step in offsetting the huge loss of advertising revenue to the tech giants, which is what is closing down local papers?”

The report's recommendations:

1. New codes of conduct to rebalance the relationship between online platforms and publishers: those online platforms upon which publishers increasingly depend for traffic should be required to set out codes of conduct to govern their commercial arrangements with news publishers, with oversight from a regulator.
2. Investigate the workings on the online advertising market to ensure fair competition: the Competition and Markets Authority should use its information-gathering powers to conduct a market study of the online advertising industry.
3. News Quality Obligation: online platforms’ efforts to improve users’ news experience should be placed under regulatory supervision. Platforms have already developed initiatives to help users identify reliability and the trustworthiness of sources.
4. Media Literacy: the government should develop a media literacy strategy, working with Ofcom, the online platforms, news publishers, broadcasters, voluntary organisations and academics, to identify gaps in provision and opportunities for more collaborative working.
5. The BBC’s market impact and role: Ofcom should assess whether BBC News Online is striking the right balance between aiming for the widest reach for its own content on the one hand and driving traffic from its online site to commercial publishers (particularly local ones) on the other. The BBC should do more to share its technical and digital expertise for the benefit of local publishers.
6. Innovation funding: the government should launch a new fund focussed on innovations aimed at improving the supply of public-interest news, to be run by Nesta in the first instance, and in due course by the proposed Institute for Public Interest News.
7. New forms of tax relief: the government should introduce new tax reliefs aimed at (i) improving how the online news market works and (ii) ensuring an adequate supply of public-interest journalism.
8. Direct funding for local public-interest news: the Local Democracy Reporting Service should be evaluated and expanded, and responsibility for its management passed to, or shared with, the proposed Institute for Public Interest News.
9. Establish an Institute for Public Interest News: a dedicated body could amplify existing and future efforts to ensure the sustainability of public-interest news, working in partnership with news publishers and the online platforms as well as bodies such as Nesta, Ofcom, the BBC and academic institutions.

The Cairncross Review: a sustainable future for journalism

Read the NUJ's full submission to the review.

Press Gazette: Cairncross Review: Key facts and findings you might have missed

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