Aidan White

After years of plenty in which Internet giants have accumulated unimaginable riches by hoarding and then selling off the personal information of billions of users, the social media bubble has finally burst.

Since the US election and the Brexit vote tech companies like Facebook and Google have faced a creeping barrage of criticism.

Issues ranging from the proliferation of “fake news”; complacency over abusive communications and hate-speech; and interference of foreign actors in democratic elections using social media platforms has finally brought regulators to breaking point.

Across the world, technology giants face hostile Parliamentary inquiries over their self-regulation, their business models, their often curious approach to taxation rules, and the threat they pose to fair competition. Governments have woken up to the threat to democracy posed by routine manipulation of our media environment and the creation of an information landscape dominated by multi-billion dollar companies that are too big, too toxic and too powerful.

The past decade has been one of unprecedented success for an online business model that trades free services in exchange for mass exploitation of personal data. But it has been a miserable time for journalism.

Hundreds of newspapers have closed; thousands of journalists and editors are out of work; news coverage of corporate and political power, particularly at local level, is diminished; investigative journalism is on life-support; and people everywhere struggle to know the difference between truth, myth and malicious lies.

Growing calls for regulation to curb the tech giants’ abuse of monopoly power addresses only one part of the information crisis; there’s also a massive task to repair public confidence in the public information sphere, which is highlighted by decline of access to trustworthy and reliable journalism and the rise of populism, propaganda and disinformation.

Changing the Rules of the Game

The global backlash against tech companies is led from Brussels where European Union officials have already carried out a ground-breaking investigation into Google, leading to a record 4.3 billion Euro fine for abusing its monopoly control of the smartphone search advertising market. The EU has also ordered Apple to pay €13bn in underpaid taxes.

Meanwhile, at national level lawmakers are also putting their foot down. In Germany, new rules force Facebook to meet strict deadlines to take down abusive comments and there are now regulations to limit their capacity to force users to agree to virtually unrestricted collection of non-Facebook information in their user accounts. In January 2019 the French data protection regulator slapped a £44 million fine on Google over a lack of transparency. A month later an independent report in the UK, commissioned by the government, called for a public investigation into the dominance of Facebook and Google in the advertising marketplace.

Even in the heart of Silicon Valley there is recognition that the time has come for change. In October 2018 Apple boss Tim Cook called on the US government to introduce privacy laws as tough as those operating in the European Union, warning “our own information, from the every day to the deeply personal, is being weaponised against us with military efficiency.”

These are the opening shots in a global battle for regulation of the information landscape that also signals an opportunity to restore public trust in democratic systems and to strengthen journalism. It will take some years for this new regulatory regime to take shape, but it’s long overdue and necessary to rebalance the public information sphere in favour of democratic and human rights. As James Williams, a former Google executive who quit to become an Oxford philosopher, commented in his book Stand Out of Our Light: “I realised how impoverished was the model of humanity that the tech industry had been working with.”

Getting Journalism Back on Its Feet

The funding calamity that has overwhelmed news media has caught the attention of media policymakers across the globe. In Europe more than 15,000 journalists have lost their jobs as billions of Euro in advertising revenue has been drained away by the tech monopoly.

And in January 2019 the online news leaders who we imagined might provide a digital route to safety for cash-strapped journalism – BuzzFeed and HuffPost, for example – announced their own swingeing cuts in newsroom staffing.

The question for policymakers is not just how to regulate social media companies, which have become the world’s most powerful publishers, but how to pay for the journalism that feeds the information engine of democracy?

There are no simple answers, but it is becoming clear that the financial future of journalism will not resemble the market-driven models of the past. The future is likely to be one in which journalism is paid for through multi-stream forms of funding.

The Guardian, for instance, accepts subsidies from charities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for its reporting on poverty, health and development in Africa and elsewhere; it encourages donations from readers (with a million on the books already); and it makes the best it can from online advertising.

Many other established brands are looking to diversify their income channels, but some are reluctant to admit it for fear of creating the perception that they are compromising editorial independence.

This lack of transparency is best illustrated in the woeful acceptance by many media brands of “native advertising” that disguises promotion and sponsorship in the news pages.

Across the United States and in Europe there are dozens of examples of journalists and communities working together to create a new wave of public interest journalism.

These enterprising and creative initiatives, often small, but fiercely independent, are laying the foundations for the future of reporting, investigation and news analysis in a new non-profit marketplace of news and beyond the reach of oligarchs and special political interests.

Increasingly, news media have to accept that in a world where public interest journalism itself is no longer a sustainable product on the traditional open market, subsidies and public support – whether through grants from foundations, public donations or levies on technology and the profits of super-rich tech companies – will be essential to its survival.

The first signs of this new reality in the UK came with publication of The Cairncross Review: A Sustainable Future for Journalism, referred to earlier.

Commissioned by Britain’s Conservative government, it was carried out by the distinguished academic and former journalist Dame Frances Cairncross. She is no impulsive revolutionary, but her report, which took evidence from the Ethical Journalism Network and scores of others across the British media scene, contains some radical thinking.

It is a refreshing attempt to remind media policy makers and democrats that journalism is vital to a functioning democracy and that it needs support – including government funding – to sustain it.

Although this report is focused on the collapse of local news media, leading to the absence of independent reporting of councils and courts across the UK, the wider strategic objective is mercifully clear – to secure the future of journalism in the public interest.

Setting the Standards for Trusted Journalism

A further tricky question remains: which media or members of the journalism community are eligible for support?

Clearly, public dosh should not be handed out without diligent scrutiny of proposals, projects and agency values.

As the landscape changes, news media and journalists will have to ensure that their work is distinguishable as journalistic. This means a commitment to democratic values; the recognition and practice of ethical principles; transparency in their ownership and management; engagement with the public; and support for credible self-regulation.

The Ethical Journalism Network has been focused on helping media and journalists to define and create trusted brands to meet these standards. In the Western Balkans and Turkey over the past two years we have been promoting internal ethical media audits to strengthen media transparency and commitment to independent journalism.

We have also been working with a European project – the Journalism Trust Initiative – which brings together more than 100 organisations representing news media, journalism support groups, press councils and news media, with the bold objective of defining minimum standards for public interest journalism.

The initiative has been working for a year to prepare a detailed process for self-certification that will create a model for ethical journalism and industry self-regulation.

It brings together academics, international organisations and media leaders and is linked to The Trust Project, a similar initiative launched in the United States with the support of leading media and academic groups.

Both groups are developing trust marks and indicators for excellence in journalism and news management.

They share a vision of media regulation that does not rely upon the law, but which can be forged by a community of reporters and editors who feel comfortable with the future and who want their work recognised in the chaos of the public information landscape. They also know that, when the time comes to apply for financial support from public sources, they will have a head start.

  1. Sunday Times, October 28th 2018

The European Union sets the pace in regulating Big Tech

Over the past year EU has taken three important steps towards regulating the internet:

First, new rules have been introduced covering the handling of personal data as well as objectionable content. The General Data Protection Regulation rules affect everyone, but they are a welcome first step in ending the wholesale and secretive exploitation of personal data which has been at the heart of the big tech business model;

Secondly, the EU approved new copyright rules that will force Google and Facebook to stop users uploading copyrighted content and to share revenue with writers, journalists and musicians;

Thirdly, in September last year the EU announced a voluntary code of practice agreed with tech companies to counter disinformation and fake news.

The deal includes solemn commitments to extend transparency in political advertising; to close fake accounts; and to end all profiteering in lies and false information.

The EU promised that this would not be another exercise in window-dressing by demanding regular reports on whether the code is working.

However, the first reports, made at the end of January 2019, were not up to scratch. European Commission Security Chief Julian King criticised what he called “patchy, opaque and self-selecting” reporting from Facebook and other tech companies.

If they don’t shape up the EU has threatened new laws to force compliance.

Blueprints for change in Europe and the UK

In many countries of Europe, policymakers are looking at measures to strengthen news media to help deal with the democratic deficit caused by the impoverishment of newsrooms.

In Norway, for example, where public subsidies for journalism have been around for many years, a government-appointed inquiry into the news crisis made a unanimous recommendation in 2017 to strengthen support for public interest journalism through cash grants to promote innovation projects and to stimulate journalism of vital importance to society and public discourse. In Sweden, too, existing media subsidies have been strengthened with plans in place to expand public support.

The 2019 Cairncross Review in the United Kingdom has proposed a radical change in government thinking on how to support public interest journalism. As well as recommending more investment in news and media literacy, the report calls for substantial regulatory reforms, including:

New codes of conduct to rebalance the relationship between publishers and online platforms with the appointment of a supervisory regulator, with powers to insist on compliance and particular skills in understanding both economics and digital technology;

New forms of tax relief for news media to encourage payments for online news content and the provision of local and investigative journalism;

The establishment of an Institute for Public Interest News, a dedicated body that will strengthen efforts to ensure the future sustainability of public-interest news. Its governance should ensure complete freedom from any undue political or commercial influence

Direct financial support for public-interest news with public funds to be used to support reporting of local democracy.

The plan envisages an organic transformation of the way journalism is paid for with a system for distributing much-need assistance from public and other non-traditional sources of income.

Main photo by Sascha Bosshard on Unsplash


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