News industry welcomes ‘thoughful’ review into future sustainability

A wide-ranging of review of the future sustainability of quality journalism has been broadly welcomed by the news industry.

The News Media Association (NMA), representing national, regional and local news organisations, said it wanted to work with ministers to take forward the recommendations of the Cairncross Review as a “matter of urgency”.

“This is a thoughtful report which recognises the critical role of written journalism to democracy and sets out a series of detailed recommendations, many of which respond directly to the proposals put forward by the NMA and our members,” the association said in a statement.

“These include a Competition and Markets Authority market study into the ‘complex and opaque’ online advertising market, new measures aimed at constraining the behaviour of the online platforms, an examination of the BBC’s impact on commercial publishers, funding support for local news publishers, and tax reliefs such as extending VAT zero rating for online news publications.

“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.”

The Society of Editors (SoE) welcomed the review’s support for the reporting of local democracy – including the expansion of the BBC local news partnerships – but said it was essential the press remained free from political interference.

“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,” said SoE executive director Ian Murray.

“Crucial to all of the recommendations for what is really state support for the local media industry in particular, are the report’s insistence that bodies such as the proposed institution are free from political and other interference in deciding what constitutes public interest news worth supporting.

“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.”

He said the call for a regulator to ensure tech companies like Google and Facebook properly identify the sources of news carried on their platforms needed to be implemented with care.

“While proposals to ensure genuine news from reliable sources is easier to identify are to be welcomed, this is again an area that if poorly executed could lead to a situation where the digital giants feel obliged to block whole topics of news simply to avoid falling foul of a regulator,” he said.

“We must not see the public’s ability to access fact-based and checked news, whether of public interest or just of interest to the public, reduced through well-intentioned but poorly executed new regulations.”

The BBC welcomed the review’s support for its Local News Partnerships but insisted there was no evidence to support suggestions the corporation was “crowding out” other providers.

“We’re planning a full evaluation of the partnerships later this year. Like the review, we believe in strong local journalism and have been looking at how best to develop the work we have begun with the industry and will have more to say in the near future,” a BBC spokesman said.

“However, there is no evidence of the BBC crowding out other providers. This was looked at extensively during Charter review. It’s vital that people of all ages have access to impartial news which is relevant to them, and we provide younger audiences with a wide range of stories.

“We’re happy to look at what more we can do to share our technical and digital expertise for the benefit of local publishers, but as the review itself says, any curtailing of the BBC’s news offer would be counter-productive.”

Labour deputy leader and shadow culture secretary Tom Watson also said that criticism of the BBC was misplaced.

“Dame Frances has adopted a number of Labour’s policies, such as tax reliefs for public service journalism, but attacking the BBC is barking up the wrong tree,” he said.

“While she has recommended an inquiry into BBC News Online, the real fundamental problem that the government must now deal with is the duopoly in the digital advertising market, with over half of all revenues going to Facebook and Google.

“As long as tech giants continue to completely dominate the market it’s difficult to see how a sustainable financial footing for journalism can be achieved.”

Google spokesman Richard Gingras said: “We are committed to supporting vibrant and sustainable quality journalism, directing our users to news websites more than 10 billion times a month and sharing more than 70% of any revenue generated from our ad technology with news publishers.

“We have worked closely with the Cairncross inquiry and look forward to discussing the proposals further to ensure sustainable, high quality journalism in the UK.”

Damian Collins, chairman of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, welcomed the review’s findings, particularly on social media companies.

“In particular I agree with her that there needs to be a broad-based code of conduct to rebalance the relationship between news providers and social media platforms, and that 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,” he said.

“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.”