Three-D Issue 31: ‘High Quality Journalism’ or Tendentious Trash?

In its call for evidence, the Cairncross Review stated its objective as ‘to establish how far and by what means we can secure a sustainable future for high quality journalism, particularly for news’, asked respondents whether ‘the future of high quality journalism in the UK is at risk – at national, regional and/or local levels’, and argued that ‘high quality journalism plays a critical role in our democratic system, in particular through holding power to account, and its independence must be safeguarded’.

The former culture secretary Matt Hancock and the review’s own chair have both stated that its purpose is not to safeguard the journalistic status quo, but the above strongly suggest that the starting position of the review is that ‘high quality journalism’ already exists in the UK and must be protected.

The immediate problem with such a position is that there is abundant evidence to suggest that ‘high quality journalism’ is largely absent from a significant section of the British media, namely the national press, which, for very good reasons, is the least trusted in the European Union. Blithely untroubled by such evidence, the review’s scoping document confidently opined that ‘the UK has always benefited from a … vibrant, independent and plural free press and that the resultant ‘robust high quality journalism is important for public debate, scrutiny, and ultimately for democratic political discourse’ and thus needs to be protected ‘as one of the cornerstones of our public debate’.

Similar sentiments were expressed by Hancock himself and Theresa May, but the problem with their oleaginous tributes to the ‘Fourth Estate’ is that they simply confuse the role which the press should play in a democratic society with the role actually played by most national newspapers in the UK today. For example, Hancock’s loftily claimed that a

free and independent press is one of the foundations on which our democracy is built. It is a vital outlet for investigations, ideas and opinions which help our democracy thrive and our society progress. High quality journalism gives a voice to those who don’t have one and provides us all with the facts we need to fulfil our roles as citizens.

He also argued that newspapers ‘hold the powerful to account, uncover injustices’ and provide ‘a vital public service’ – this in a particularly smarmy tribute to London’s monopoly daily the Evening Standard, whose long-standing political bias coupled with its particularly queasy relationship with advertisers, starkly illustrates much of what is wrong with the British press. But not for the admiring Hancock, who fawned that it

has led the way in adapting to these changing times. It was an early adopter of digital publication and took the bold decision to go free. And throughout this forward-looking approach it has covered issues that matter to Londoners — and sold London to the world. The result: the Evening Standard has more readers today than ever before. I hope the new design will see the newspaper prosper for many years to come. It’s a timely reminder of the special look, feel and readability of good old newsprint.

Thus Tory MP praises fervently Tory newspaper edited by former Tory chancellor – and this is the kind of ‘independent’, ‘robust’, ‘high quality’ journalism that is so in need of protection and preservation?

Even a cursory reading of most of Britain’s national newspapers will rapidly puncture fantasies à la Hancock, as will reading the vast amounts of evidence of press malfeasance generated by the Leveson Inquiry (part two of which Hancock summarily cancelled). Furthermore, the idea that the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) represents a ‘robust mechanism’ which successfully addresses ‘disinformation’ in the press industry simply does not stand up to one moment’s scrutiny: see, for example, here and here, and note its almost total inaction over one of the most shocking and execrable examples of ‘journalism’ in recent times: the Andrew Norfolk ‘Muslim foster care’ story in The Times, August 2017.

But what is putting this wonderful ‘high quality journalism’ at risk? Public disenchantment with sleaze, sensationalism, privacy intrusion, propaganda and so on? No, of course not: it’s all the fault of those wicked digital interlopers. Never mind that national newspaper sales have been on the slide since the end of WWII, and that numerous titles closed before the internet was ever invented, Hancock stated in the review’s press release that it would

assess the operation of the digital advertising supply chain including funding flows and its role in creating or reducing value for publishers. It will also look at ‘clickbait’ and low quality news and if there is more that can be done to tackle this issue and undermine any commercial incentives associated with it. Also within the review’s remit will be an examination of how data created or owned by news publications is collected and distributed by online platforms.

Hancock also gave the impression that ‘disinformation’ is to be found only in online news sources, complaining in the very far from ‘high quality’ Times that the arrival of digital journalism ‘has helped fuel the rise and fast spreading of disinformation, whether peddled for commercial gain as clickbait or for more insidious purposes by hostile actors’, and enquiring: ‘How can we ensure online journalism remains accountable and subject to the same professional and ethical standards as print journalism?’, a prospect which should fill anyone remotely familiar with IPSO’s modus operandi with horror.

Of course, it would be foolish to deny that the internet has contributed to the problems of the press, but it is only one of numerous factors, many of which are of the industry’s own making and have a long history: for example, in the case of national papers offering a product which an increasing number of people find unpalatable and have thus stopped buying, whilst much of the local press was unforgivably slow in investing in an online presence, and thus lost huge amounts of advertising revenue to the internet. The owners’ response was to slash jobs (whilst handsomely rewarding shareholders), causing journalistic standards to decline, thus leading to further falls in readership.

However, it’s extremely hard to avoid the conclusion that the review was established by the government in order to sustain and curry favour with the client press by devising ways of channelling monies from the digital media to the existing national and local/regional press oligopoly. Such suspicions are only heightened by the fact that, extraordinarily, the views of the main potential beneficiaries of such largesse are actually included in the press release! Thus David Dinsmore of the News Media Association pops up to argue that:

Viable business models must be found that ensure a wide variety of media are able to have a long and healthy future. Through digital platforms, news content is more widely consumed than ever before but the revenues to sustain the investment in that quality content are challenged. This review on a sustainable future is very welcome.

So, from the start, a set of parameters appears to have been established within which the review’s discussions would be expected to take place. (This exactly mirrors the manner in which the DCMS select committee inquiry into ‘fake news’ was established in a manner which specifically excluded consideration of the British press, itself a considerable generator of such news). Whether the review moved beyond these parameters remains to be seen, but the make-up of the panel, which could have been hand-picked by the NMA, doesn’t inspire confidence: no NUJ members, no senior journalism academics (all but two of whom are extremely critical of the British national press, so perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised), and various representatives of those self-same local/regional and national publishers who bear such a heavy responsibility for the wretched state of the UK press at both national and regional/local levels.

Any review which blames the state of the British press simply on the arrival of digital media, rather than regarding this as symptomatic of its long-term structural and systemic problems, is doomed to failure from the start. It is equally doomed if it doesn’t define exactly what it means by ‘high quality journalism’, simply equating this with journalism as currently practiced by the national press. What such journalism should, of course, encompass are the values and ideals of the Fourth Estate. This means, essentially, journalism which operates in the public interest, for the benefit of all citizens and in support of the democratic process. It is this form of journalism, particularly at the local level, which should be the recipient of financial support of the kind envisaged by the Media Reform Coalition, the Reuters Institute, the Cass Business School and indeed Jeremy Corbyn.

However, just how stridently resistant much of the press is to any kind of reform which threatens the status quo is clearly illustrated by the quite hysterical reactions of the Sun and Telegraph to Corbyn’s Edinburgh speech, which simply argued that ‘we must break the stranglehold of elite power and billionaire domination over large parts of our media’, opening it up and making it more plural by finding ‘ways to empower those who create it and those who consume it over those who want to control and own it’. To these ends he suggested the possibility of

granting charitable status for some local, investigative and public interest journalism. This type of journalism needs support and the government has a role in helping develop a business model to strengthen and underpin it. One solution to funding public interest media could be by tapping up the digital monopolies that profit from every search, share and like we make.

Another possible solution could be the

reform and expansion of an existing BBC scheme, which sees ring fenced funding for ‘local democracy reporters’ employed in local papers. Part of these funds could be made available to local, community and investigative news co-ops, with a mandate to use significant time and resources reporting on public institutions, public service providers, local government, outsourced contractors and regulated bodies.

All perfectly in line with conventional Fourth Estate values. But not for the Sun, 23 August, which headlined its report ‘Red’s Revenge’ and argued that ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s sole motive in “changing the media” is to silence a hostile Press’. And, inevitably, Murdoch’s trusty mouthpiece on press matters, Mick Hume, was wheeled out to accuse Corbyn of wanting to ‘nationalise the news’ and force the media to ‘push his own left-wing agenda’. Blithely asserting that public interest journalism is ‘just an ethical-sounding excuse for imposing your own interests on what are really matters of personal taste and political preference’, he concluded that ‘when Corbynites talk about wanting a more “diverse” media, one thing they do not mean is diversity of content and opinion. They want a conformist media that will report what it is told and not ask awkward questions’.

For the Telegraph, 24 August, Corbyn had unveiled a ‘plan for the Left-wing capture of the media’. This was to be achieved by ‘turning the BBC into an instrument of Corbynite control and using it to squeeze the free press out of the market’. And in the same day’s paper, Spectator editor Fraser Nelson managed the remarkable feat of sounding even more dementedly obsessive than Hume. Producing absolutely no evidence whatsoever for such assertions, he argued that local democracy reporters would be ‘government-mandated’ and that their remit ‘would presumably be set by a Corbynite commissar’; that ‘investigative journalism’ (his quotes) would be funded only insofar as it pursued ‘politically approved targets’; and that allowing journalists to elect their editor ‘would, of course [sic], allow the government to decide how newspapers are run’. WTF?

However, by far the most revealing part of this diatribe is its take on Labour’s ideas for raising funds from internet companies to help pay for public interest journalism. This is precisely where we came in, with the genesis of the Cairncross Review in newspapers’ agitating to be effectively subsidised by Google and Facebook. But whereas it’s apparently fine and dandy for the right-wing press to benefit thus (although in its own pages it’s absolutely de rigueur to accuse recipients of subsidies of ‘distorting the market’), when this suggestion is made by Corbyn it’s represented as a ‘tax raid’ whose purpose is ‘to reshape the media in a way more to his liking’. And the argument that such funding is needed in order to support public interest journalism is simply dismissed via the ideological conjuring trick of caricaturing such journalism as ‘government approved journalism’.

Is this the kind of ‘high quality journalism’ that the Cairncross Review wants to see preserved? Does this contribute one iota to the kind of ‘public debate’ in which the review, quite rightly, claims that journalism should play a key role? Or is it simply self-interested, tendentious trash posing as ‘journalism’, which actually poisons the well of public debate? If so, the very last thing it needs is subsidy, and the sooner it’s squeezed out of the market the better.

Posted by Einar Thorsen