University of Westminster
Given its provenance, it was hardly surprising that announcement of a review into the sustainability of journalism was greeted with scepticism. Announced by the then Culture Secretary Matt Hancock on the back of his government’s unilateral cancellation of the second part of the Leveson Inquiry – and its refusal to implement key recommendations on press self-regulation from the first part – there was widespread suspicion about government motives and likely outcomes.
While suspicion about the announcement was justified, Dame Frances Cairncross – entrusted with conducting the review – cemented her reputation for independence and diligence with some carefully crafted final recommendations that, if taken seriously, would make an excellent start to resolving the growing and serious problem of journalism’s broken business model. This is particularly acute, as academics and practitioners have long been aware, at the local level.
Her two key proposals tackle revenue generation and revenue distribution. First, to encourage more investment, she recommended a new annual “innovation” fund of £10m, working closely with Google and Facebook on sustainable business approaches. There were also proposals for two forms of tax relief: removing VAT on digital subscriptions to harmonise the tax regime (hard copy is already exempt); and extending the charitable framework to non-profit publishers (originally recommended by the Lords Communications Committee in 2012, and currently being pursued by a small group of academics and non-profits).
But it’s the distribution proposal which lies at the heart of her Review and whose implementation would be truly radical: a new Institute for Public Interest News (IPIN) which would forge partnerships with publishers and platforms, distribute revenue, commission research and – by implication – would have to find ways of ensuring compliance with public interest journalism objectives.
Cairncross stressed the need for an IPIN governance framework that must be “carefully designed to ensure complete freedom from any obligations, political or commercial”, which of course was precisely the approach recommended by Leveson and through which the Press Recognition Panel was established to hold press regulators to account. In fact, Cairncross cited the PRP appointments process as a potential model for her Institute. All the ingredients are there for a genuinely ground-breaking response to the crisis in local journalism.
Unfortunately, the prognosis for action is not good, for two reasons. First, progress will depend on a government that is willing to face down a dinosaur press lobby which – most recently through its corporate lobbying umbrella group the News Media Association – has beaten UK governments into submission for decades. The NMA will not like the prospect either of public money going to potential competitors or – more significantly – the very idea of an independent scrutiny body responsible for interpreting and monitoring “public interest news”.
Second, even a weak government might be up for the fight under a determined and principled Prime Minister. Unfortunately, those are not adjectives immediately associated with Boris Johnson, whose indebtedness to the press includes both a largely uncritical coronation and £275,000 a year for his weekly Telegraph column.
It is one of the great ironies of the British media-politics nexus that, with a journalist running the country, imaginative and far-sighted proposals for reinvigoration journalism will almost certainly be binned.
Steven Barnett is currently specialist adviser to the Lords Communications Committee for its inquiry into streaming services and PSB.