14th February 2019
By Tom Law

Cairncross: UK review into a sustainable future for journalism

Chris Elliott

A plan for greater media literacy in the UK is one of the recommendations made from a UK review into a sustainable future for journalism.

Dame Frances Anne Cairncross, a British economist, journalist and academic, with the support of an expert panel, was tasked with preparing the report by the UK government “looking at how to sustain the production and distribution of high-quality journalism in a changing market.”

The review received 757 responses from academics, advertising executives, journalists, industry bodies, online platforms, politicians, publishers and general/public responses including a 15-page submission from the Ethical Journalism Network.

The EJN proposed a levy on the tech giants to fund a media literacy scheme. As the Cairncross Report wrote:

“It was also suggested that greater investment needs to be made in media literacy. As has already been noted, some respondents suggested that any money that is collected via a levy or ear-marked for subsidies should be put into improving media literacy. The Ethical Journalism Network wrote that:

An industrial levy should be placed on the technology giants, who have made their profits on the backs of the labour and investment of others, to fund a national media literacy scheme that works with all ages, from primary school children upwards (Ethical Journalism Network)”

Among the key recommendations are a call for the government to exclude VAT from digital subscriptions as a way of supporting journalism in UK and new tax reliefs aimed at (i) improving how the online news market works and (ii) ensuring an adequate supply of public-interest journalism and an investigation into the online advertising market.

The final nine recommendations by Dame Francis Cairncross included:

  1. New codes of conduct to rebalance the relationship between online platforms and publishers: Those online platforms upon which publishers increasingly depend for traffic should be required to set out codes of conduct to govern their commercial arrangements with news publishers, with oversight from a regulator.
  2. Investigate the workings on the online advertising market to ensure fair competition: The Competition and Markets Authority should use its information-gathering powers to conduct a market study of the online advertising industry.
  3. News Quality Obligation: Online platforms’ efforts to improve users’ news experience should be placed under regulatory supervision. Platforms have already developed initiatives to help users identify reliability and the trustworthiness of sources.
  4. Media Literacy: The government should develop a media literacy strategy, working with Ofcom, the online platforms, news publishers, broadcasters, voluntary organisations and academics, to identify gaps in provision and opportunities for more collaborative working.
  5. The BBC’s market impact and role: Ofcom should assess 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. The BBC should do more to share its technical and digital expertise for the benefit of local publishers.
  6. Innovation funding: The government should launch a new fund focussed on innovations aimed at improving the supply of public-interest news, to be run by Nesta in the first instance, and in due course by the proposed Institute for Public Interest News.
  7. New forms of tax relief: The government should introduce new tax reliefs aimed at (i) improving how the online news market works and (ii) ensuring an adequate supply of public-interest journalism.
  8. Direct funding for local public-interest news: The Local Democracy Reporting Service should be evaluated and expanded, and responsibility for its management passed to, or shared with, the proposed Institute for Public Interest News.
  9. Establish an Institute for Public Interest News: A dedicated body could amplify existing and future efforts to ensure the sustainability of public-interest news, working in partnership with news publishers and the online platforms as well as bodies such as Nesta, Ofcom, the BBC and academic institutions.

Regulating the tech giants

In its submission to the Cairncross Review, Press Gazette said:

“If a way can be found to siphon some of the billions in revenue made by the US digital giants into supporting high-quality local journalism we argue that would provide a huge social good.”

In the Ethical Journalism Network’s submission to the review, we also argued for a levy.

“Technology giants, so skilful in adopting international tax-avoidance measures, would find it harder to turn down an initiative designed to improve the experience of their users, especially when they are under huge pressure to remove the high levels of hate speech and disinformation that abound on social media. A twin approach of removal and helping their users towards an effective media literacy that encourages them to recognise the true from the untrue would be hard to resist.”

The EJN submission went on to argue that “any plan to ‘sustain the production and distribution of high-quality journalism’ must have at its heart ethical journalism. This is not just a moral and societal imperative but crucial to any new business model.”

A favourable environment for quality journalism

On 24 -25 September 2018, the Committee of experts on quality journalism in the digital age (MSI-JOQ) held its second meeting in Strasbourg. (Photo: Council of Europe)

The EJN is also taking part in the Council of Europe’s committee of experts on quality journalism in the digital age, which will meet for the third time in Strasbourg next month.

The group, of which the EJN’s Tom Law is a member, is working on a wider recommendation to the Council of Europe’s 47 member states on “promoting a favourable environment for quality journalism in the digital age”.

The EJN has made a strong case that ‘high-quality journalism’ should not be given a narrow definition of investigative journalism or foreign news; it is public-interest journalism in the broadest sense.

This case was also made in the EJN’s submission to the Cairncross review:

‘High-quality journalism’ should be seen as the timely delivery of accurate, fair and transparent reporting of the facts citizens need to make informed decisions in a democracy. Such reporting is an indicator of the health of that society. On any reading of the evidence – the loss of journalists, the loss of newspapers and the loss of trust – we are suffering from a ‘democratic deficit’. Key areas of British public life are going unreported and unscrutinised.

For more information about the work of the Council of Europe’s Committee of experts on quality read Tom’s article about the most recent meeting: Supporting quality journalism in the digital age.

Other coverage of the Cairncross Review

  • Public funds should be used to rescue local journalism, says report (Guardian)
  • The Cairncross Report: what it says and first impressions – These decent proposals for helping public service journalism are worryingly vulnerable, comments professor Brian Cathcart (Journalism.co.uk)
  • A major British government review proposes some light regulation of Google and Facebook (and perhaps new limits on the BBC) (Nieman Lab)
  • Cairncross Review: a blueprint for tackling tensions between platforms and publishers? (WAN-IFRA)
  • The Media Show: The Cairncross Conundrum. Demand for news is higher than ever but fewer people are prepared to pay for it. The government asked former journalist Dame Frances Cairncross to conduct a review into the sustainability of high-quality journalism. Amol Rajan is joined by Dame Frances Cairncross, Wolfgang Blau, president of Condé Nast International, Professor Jane Martinson, Daniel Ionescu, managing editor of The Lincolnite and Lincolnshire Reporter, and Paul Staines, publisher of Guido Fawkes. (BBC Radio 4)