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Cairncross Review: Support for expansion of BBC local democracy scheme from regional publishers and trade body

News trade bodies and publishers have welcomed a report examining the UK journalism industry and ways to sustain it in the face of a rapidly changing market, in particular its focus on protecting local news.

In her report, published yesterday, Dame Frances Cairncross made nine recommendations for the news industry, including creating a new Institute for Public Interest News, tax reliefs for news publishers, a competition probe into the online ad market and regulating news on online platforms.

The Cairncross Review comes at a time when the press are facing declining print and circulation revenues and stiff competition for online ad money from the likes of Facebook and Google, aka the Duopoly.

The Government has written to relevant public bodies to open discussions about how to take forward Dame Frances’ recommendations, with a full Government response expected later this year.

Supporting local news now ‘matter of urgency’

In her report, Dame Frances also recommended expanding the local democracy reporter scheme, which currently employs about 140 journalists, set up by the BBC and News Media Association.

Regional publisher Newsquest said it supports this expansion, but that it “must be done in a way that maximises its contribution to local journalism”, which it said would be “best done” by using infrastructure already in place in regional newsrooms nationwide.

“Diverting funds to setting up an alternative news publishing infrastructure or activities that directly compete with existing local publishers would further undermine the business model for quality local journalism and risks not being sustainable,” said Newsquest chief executive Henry Faure Walker.

“As Dame Frances says, there is no other area of journalism so important for the health of local democracy than local news, and finding a way to support local news is now a matter of urgency.

Chief content officer at regional publisher Archant, Matt Kelly, revealed the company “argued hard” for an extension of the local democracy reporters scheme “and are pleased to see Dame Frances listened to us”.

He added: “The government is right to be looking to find ways to make sure we can continue to do that work, even as our industry faces increasing commercial challenges.”

Need to ‘protect and reinvigorate’ local reporting

The Society of Editors, which has some 400 members in senior editorial positions across the UK news industry, also supported the report’s suggestion to expand the LDR scheme.

The scheme was set up to plug the so-called “democratic deficit” left by cuts and closures across the local news industry.

SOE executive director Ian Murray said: “It is extremely gratifying that Dame Frances and her panel have underscored the need to protect and indeed reinvigorate the reporting of local democracy and open justice, areas which have suffered and continue to suffer as the industry contracts.”

He said enlarging the LDR scheme “makes sense”, but said there was “no indication of where such funding would come from and on what scale”.

On the creation of a new Institute for Public Interest News, Murray said of crucial importance was the report’s insistence that it is “free from political and other interference in deciding what constitutes public interest news worth supporting”.

He added: “The press in the UK has not fought long and hard to maintain its independence and freedom to then find itself regulated by state-appointed bodies, no matter how well-meaning was their original creation.”

The NMA, which represents national, regional and local news media organisations in the UK, said of the review, which took evidence between June and September last year, that it is a “thoughtful report which recognises the critical role of written journalism to democracy”.

Many of the proposals, it said, responded directly to those it had put forward to the review.

A spokesperson said: “We look forward to engaging with the government to discuss the Cairncross recommendations in more detail and how these should be taken forward as a matter of urgency to ensure they support independent journalism delivered by a strong and sustainable press.”

‘Democracy benefits from strong local press’

Regional publisher Archant’s chief executive Jeff Henry said of the report: “As an industry, we felt it crucial that the report recognised the vital role that local journalism plays in democracy.

“On a commercial front, our traditional print business model is under huge pressure but we have embraced the incredible opportunities that the digital world affords us. We can only do this if the playing field is level. The recommendation that the ‘complex and opaque online advertising market’ be looked at by the Competition and Market Authority makes total sense.

“We can thrive and indeed are fast becoming a very relevant digital business serving local audiences and businesses. Local publishers make a huge contribution to the communities in which we all live.

“The report identifies the need for action and I look forward to many of the report proposals becoming reality with some urgency. Democracy benefits from a strong sustainable local press and Archant believes this is worth the fight.”

‘Need code of conduct to rebalance relationship’

Damian Collins MP, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and leader of the UK’s fake news inquiry, called for existing bodies that “work to maintain high standards in journalism” to be used to meet Cairncross’ aims over creation of a new institute.

On the report, the Tory MP said he agreed with her findings that “there needs to be a broad-based code of conduct to rebalance the relationship between news providers and social media platforms”.

He said this should include “an obligation on behalf of the platforms to help their users distinguish between quality journalism, and stories coming from organisations that have been linked to disinformation or are regarded as being unreliable sources.

“The social media companies could develop tools like this for themselves, or work with existing providers, such as Newsguard. The requirement for social media companies to introduce such measures could form part of a new system of content regulation on these platforms, based on a statutory code, and overseen by an independent regulator, like Ofcom.

“I would ask that the government confirms that it regards the malicious spreading of disinformation to be an online harm, as it is a direct threat to our democracy. As such I hope the DCMS will also include measures to address this in its forthcoming white paper on Online Harms. “

Collins also gave his support to zero-rated VAT for digital publications, saying it would “remove the false incentive for news companies against developing more paid for digital services”.

Review is a ‘milestone’ in history of journalism

He said a call to investigative the online ad market was also backed by the fake news inquiry.

Jonathan Heawood, chief executive of alternative regulator Impress, said: ‘The Cairncross Review is a milestone in the history of journalism. Dame Frances has focused not on rebuilding the industry of the past, but on sustaining high-quality journalism for the future.

“We welcome her sensible recommendations and look forward to working with all stakeholders to bring about the changes that are necessary to support the public interest in high-quality journalism.’

Dominic Young, founder and chief executive of publisher payment platform Agate, which is used by the likes of The New European and Popbitch, said: “Ultimately, the thing which will save the media is the media itself. Advertising cannot be the primary revenue source for the news media.

“But, the industry needs a payment option other than subscriptions, with most people in the ‘middle majority’ who are unwilling to invest in multiple subscriptions, but not unwilling to pay at all.

“The Cairncross report offers some valuable and insightful analysis of some very complex issues, with constructive and achievable proposals that will help improve the incentives for investment in media.”

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