UK government fails to deliver on public interest news

  • 29 Jan 2020

The government's response to the Cairncross Review recommendations is a wasted opportunity.

The union has condemned the government's response to the Cairncross Review recommendations as a wasted opportunity to address the crisis facing local journalism. Nearly a year after the review was published, the statement from the government ruled out the creation of an Institute for Public Interest News to help save the news industry, claiming such a body could be seen as government interference in a free press.

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 government signalled its willingness, however, to consider extending some tax breaks, which could include removing the VAT charged on online news subscriptions to fall in line with printed newspapers. The only financial commitment is a £1,500 discount on business rates for office space occupied by local newspapers in England, and a confirmation of the already committed investment of £2million to the charity Nesta, to encourage innovation in the news industry.

The Cairncross Review also recommended the development of a media literacy strategy, a market review of the digital advertising market, the creation of an online code of conduct and regulator for tech platforms, tax reliefs, an Ofcom review into the BBC and an expansion of the Local Democracy Reporters scheme.

In response to specific Cairncross recommendations the union has said:

  • Any new codes of conduct (recommendation one) or regulatory supervision (recommendation three) should not just advantage the large media companies that currently dominate the news industry market.
  • Any new statutory duty of care for online providers (recommendation three) should be explicit in its definition of harm and safety, and it should not impinge on freedom of association or expression. Any proposals for a new regulator for online platforms should be open to public and stakeholder consultation.
  • The NUJ encourages the government to publish the draft media literacy strategy (recommendation four) for consultation in advance of the launch in summer 2020.
  • Further investigations or assessments of the BBC's market impact carried by Ofcom (recommendation five) should not just focus on additional technical and digital expertise for the benefit of the largest publishers.
  • The new pilot innovation fund (recommendation six) operated by Nesta has been welcomed, however, only 19 projects out of the 178 applications have been approved, this shows the existing £2 million budget is not sufficient to meet the demand for investment and support.
  • The government have said the chancellor will now consider the case for tax incentives (recommendation seven) to support the news publishing industry. The union believes there needs to be a proactive approach to supporting new models of media ownership.
  • Cairncross recommended the Local Democracy Reporting Service should be reviewed and expanded (recommendation eight). The service was established by the BBC in 2017 and currently funds around 150 journalists across the UK, with a focus on reporting on the activities of local authorities and other public bodies. The scheme's creation was an acknowledgement of both the importance of public interest journalism and the deficit created when many private sector media organisations sacrificed this kind of reporting in favour of what they perceived to be more profitable content. The union believes it is not appropriate for the licence fee payer to foot the bill for media companies to hire reporters. The union wants the management and oversight of the scheme to be the responsibility of the BBC or a not-for-profit organisation. If the scheme is expanded, it should also cover local courts as well as public services.

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