By Jonathan Heawood
It is seven weeks since Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the United Kingdom into lockdown. Throughout this crisis, independent journalists and news publishers have continued to work on the front line, not only reporting on the pandemic, but also directly supporting relief efforts. But they have not received a scrap of support from the Government.
Early in the crisis, the Public Interest News Foundation (PINF) surveyed independent news publishers. We found that they are going way beyond traditional journalism in their response to the crisis: co-ordinating volunteers, collating home delivery services and providing a forum for citizens to engage with their local authorities.
We also found how badly these small publishers are suffering. 94% believe that the crisis will have a negative impact on their organisations, and 75% are afraid that they will be forced to close as a result.
We were glad when the Government acknowledged that all journalists – from BBC correspondents to freelancers – are key workers. But we have been appalled by the Government’s refusal to give independent publishers the support they need.
On 17 April, the Government proudly announced plans to spend £35m with newspapers on a public information campaign. Michael Gove, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, said: ‘With this campaign we are both saving lives by providing essential information to the public, and supporting cherished local institutions.’
However, not a penny of this £35m has gone to independent publishers. Instead, it has been spent on the national and regional corporations that dominate the newspaper industry – companies like Newsquest, which posted profits in 2018 of £108m, after closing 16 newspapers, and which is owned by Gannet, the largest newspaper chain in the United States.
Whilst taxpayers’ money is being used to prop up these multinationals, independent UK-based publishers are not benefiting from any form of Government support.
In a survey carried out this week by the Independent Community News Network (ICNN), 95% of respondents said they had not been able to access any of ten listed measures, including the Coronavirus Job Retention (Furlough) Scheme; the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme; Government-backed loans; the deferral of the next quarter of VAT; and the zero-rating of VAT on e-publications.
Nearly all independent publishers surveyed said that in fact they had received no help whatsoever from the Government.
This rather undermines the Government’s stated support for journalism. In a letter to a Leeds MP, the Minister for Media, John Whittingdale wrote: ‘The government recognises the vital role of the news publishing sector in ensuring the provision of reliable, high-quality information. The need for people to be able to access independent, verifiable news and information from local publications like South Leeds Life is now more essential than ever.’
However, the editor of South Leeds Life, Jeremy Morton, responded to the ICNN survey by saying: ‘I can confirm that NONE of the measures listed have helped South Leeds Life.’
In most cases, independent publications are run by individuals who are not self-employed, and so cannot furlough themselves and continue to work or access income support.
Smaller organisations tend not to have offices or premises, but work from home or in shared office spaces and none of them earn enough to benefit from VAT deferral or zero-rating of e-publications.
Yet the combined reach of the independent news sector in the UK is vast, with several hundred professional publications reaching more than 15m people online every month, and a collective print run of over 426,000 copies.
Independent news providers include local, hyperlocal and regional newspapers and websites, alongside non-profit investigative journalism organisations and BAME publications. The sector reaches people who aren’t reached by other forms of media, including people living in ‘news deserts’, where companies like Newsquest have closed other local papers, people who speak English as an additional language and younger people.
They are small but professional organisations, with turnover below £2m and a commitment to high standards of journalism.
They are keeping communities afloat with responsible and engaged journalism during this pandemic. Sadly, they are also the ones most at risk from the crisis – and this is not just a problem for the sector. The impact of COVID-19 on independent publishers could also have a catastrophic impact on public health across the UK.
If independent news providers are unable to continue reporting, due to lack of Government support, entire communities will lose access to their only source of reliable and trusted news and information. The latest research shows that BAME groups are less likely than others to engage with mainstream media, and more likely to get their news from social media, with all of its conspiracy theories and misinformation.
Unless the Government makes urgent efforts to work with the publications that can reach these forgotten audiences, the ultimate victims here will undoubtedly be the public.
Jonathan Heawood is the executive director of the Public Interest News Foundation www.publicinterestnews.org.uk, a role he took on in early 2020. He began his career as a journalist at the Observer and went on to spend seven years as Director of English PEN, where he campaigned successfully for free speech and media freedom. He served as Director of Programmes at the Sigrid Rausing Trust, one of Europe’s largest human rights foundations, where he developed a new strategy to support investigative journalism. In 2015, Jonathan founded the independent press regulator IMPRESS (The Independent Monitor for the Press). He led IMPRESS as CEO until March 2020.
Jonathan has written for newspapers and magazines including the Telegraph, Independent, Guardian, London Review of Books, Prospect and New Statesman, and journals including Critical Quarterly, Ethical Space, Journal of Media Law, Communications Law, Information Polity and the British Journalism Review. He has also given evidence to several Parliamentary select committees and is regularly invited to speak at conferences in the UK and internationally. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Stirling, a Leadership Fellow at St George’s House, Windsor, a Committee Member at the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, and Chair of the Stephen Spender Trust. His book, The Press Freedom Myth, was published by Biteback in 2019.