Three-D Issue 32: The Cairncross Review: can it get past the press gang?

David Baines
Newcastle University
Agnes Gulyas
Canterbury Christ Church University
Rachel Matthews
Coventry University

The cover of the Government-commissioned report, carries the rather anodyne label: ‘The Cairncross Review: A Sustainable Future for Journalism’. But in the second paragraph (p5) it reveals its critical concern: ‘The Review was asked to consider the sustainability of the production and distribution of high-quality journalism, and especially the future of the press, in this dramatically changing market.’ Our emphasis.

After explaining succinctly the nature of those dramatic changes, it sets out its goals. These are not to protect news companies themselves – most of which are ‘generating good profits with margins of 10% or more’– but to ascertain whether that market is fair and establish ‘how should society continue to support the monitoring of, and reporting on, the activities of public bodies, not just in central government but also in localities: local councils, courts, inquests?’ “Public-interest” news.

Commentators have highlighted the Review’s conclusions, that systems of publicly-funded support are necessary to sustain public-interest journalism, particularly at the local level. But the panel set out not to ask if society should support high-quality journalism – but how it should do so, now that many publishers have stepped away, remaining profitable only by cutting costs, staff and coverage. ‘If the transition to digital and a consequent decline in publishers’ revenues is likely to reduce the supply of good investigative journalism, then the public has an interest in finding ways to support it’ (p19).

That the Review should have been able to adopt this as its starting point indicates the scale of the paradigm shift that has taken place in the industry. While journalism has long been regarded as a public good, in Britain (leaving aside the BBC) it has also been shaped by its primary function as a source of profit. While other countries have recognised that the public has an interest in finding ways to support it (see for example, Murschetz, 2014), in Britain, publishers have claimed, sometimes disingenuously, to eschew public support. Then Newspaper Society (now evolved into the News Media Association – NMA) director David Newell said in August 2008:

‘The regional press has … maintained its independence from statutory content controls, state subsidy and public funding, in order to safeguard the independence of its journalism.’ (Cited in Baines, 2013, p205)

Since then, the local and regional press have accepted business rate reductions and received into their newsrooms some 144 Local Democracy Reporters, providing the public-interest critical coverage and holding-to-account of local government which the Review prioritises. The £8m per year cost of this project is born by the BBC licence-fee and includes access to BBC video and audio material for newspapers to use online and a BBC-funded data unit sharing data journalism with news organisations.

The Review’s key recommendations is that public support for public benefit journalism should be managed and delivered by a new body – an Institute for Public Interest News – independent of ‘any obligations, political or commercial’. Its objective would be to ensure the future provision of public interest news and to do so it would build strong partnerships with organisations such as the BBC, Facebook and Google (p101). The direct model of financial support for local news should be expanded and responsibility for its management passed from the BBC to the new institute.

Something similar is already taking shape. In March 2019, a month after publication of the Cairncross Review, BBC director general Tony Hall announced that the corporation had been in talks with tech companies and the government and will be setting up a registered charity, the Local Democracy Foundation, behind which he will ‘mobilise a powerful coalition’. Among other functions, it will take over the funding and control of the Local Democracy Reporters project. Hall has promised to provide full details of the charity and its backers this summer and it remains to be seen how much support the project will receive from the newspaper industry, particularly the local and regional newspaper industry.

The Review, however, envisages more than a charitable role for the Institute for Public Interest News: it advocates that it also takes on an oversight function. It suggests that in developing a future viability for public interest news, it might bring together organisations and individuals which have an interest in the future of news production, such as the news publishers themselves, Ofcom, the BBC, academics. And that it might ‘evolve into a body somewhat resembling the Arts Council is scale, reach and function’ (p102). In view if its oversight and funding role, ‘Its chair should be appointed in a manner indubitably free from government influence. One model for the process might be the approach taken for appointments to the Press Recognition Panel.’

So Caircross offers incentives in the form of additional support for the newspaper publishers to come on board. They have demonstrated a willingness to accept public subsidy in the form of publicly-funded reports providing them with public-interest content which they have proved unwilling to pay for themselves. But they have offered little in return for that generosity. 

The bulk of Britain’s newspaper industry, national and local, has displayed an implacable hostility towards the Press Recognition Panel. It has long objected to the BBC furnishing licence payers with local news, which it regards as ‘unfair competition’. The Review acknowledges this and calls for Ofcom to review ‘whether BBC News Online is striking the right balance between aiming for the widest reach for its own content on the one hand and driving traffic from its online site to commercial publishers (particularly local ones) on the other’. It even calls for the BBC to do even more ‘to share its technical and digital expertise for the benefit of local publishers’ (p90). Will that be sufficient to secure its goodwill? 

There remains at the end of this review the tensions between regarding high-quality news as a public benefit, and as a source of profit; the public as engaged citizens, and the audience for news as a commercial commodity. Cairncross charts a way forward and, with the BBC and others onside, there are grounds for optimism that the production and distribution of public-interest news will be sustainable. But local newspaper conglomerates have long demonstrated a rugged determination to prioritise their own interests and, as we have seen with the response to Leveson, governments have shown little appetite for standing up to their lobbying. But if it is, the groundwork Cairncross has prepared and the efforts by the BBC to carry the project forward and, crucially, hand over control to an independent body, means the momentum might be sufficient to develop new systems which produce and distribute high-quality public-interest news – with or without the enthusiastic support of the current commercial press.

Rachel Matthews, Agnes Gulyas and David Baines are founding members of the MECCSA Local and Community Media Network. The network has already engaged with the alternative press regulator, Impress, and David Baines was invited to attend its Independent Publishers Taskforce in London in June, drawing up a response to Cairncross. The Network aims to offer one or two panels at the annual MeCCSA conference at Brighton in January 2020 and a call for papers has been circulated with this end in mind.

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