Cairncross report recommends levelling of the playing field for UK journalism

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  • Review recommends online platforms should have a ‘news quality obligation’ to improve trust in news they host, overseen by a regulator
  • Government should explore direct funding for local news and new tax reliefs to support public interest journalism
  • A new Institute for Public Interest News should focus on the future of local and regional press and oversee a new innovation fund

The independent review, undertaken by Dame Frances Cairncross, was tasked by the Prime Minister in 2018 with investigating the sustainability of the production and distribution of high-quality journalism.

It comes as significant changes to technology and consumer behaviour are posing problems for high-quality journalism, both in the UK and globally.

Dame Frances was advised by a panel of experts from the local and national press, digital and physical publishers and advertising. Her recommendations include measures to tackle the uneven balance of power between news publishers and the online platforms that distribute their content, and to address the growing risks to the future provision of public-interest news.

It also concludes that intervention may be needed to improve people’s ability to assess the quality of online news, and to measure their engagement with public interest news. The key recommendations are:

  • New codes of conduct to rebalance the relationship between publishers and online platforms;
  • The CMA to investigate the online advertising market to ensure fair competition;
  • Online platforms’ efforts to improve their users’ news experience should be placed under regulatory supervision;
  • Ofcom should explore the market impact of BBC News, and whether its inappropriately steps into areas better served by commercial news providers;
  • The BBC should do more to help local publishers and think further about how its news provision can act as a complement to commercial news;
  • A new independent Institute should be created to ensure the future provision of public interest news;
  • A new Innovation Fund should be launched, aiming to improve the supply of public interest news;
  • New forms of tax reliefs to encourage payments for online news content and support local and investigative journalism;
  • Expanding financial support for local news by extending the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporting Service;
  • Developing a media literacy strategy alongside Ofcom, industry and stakeholders.

The report was welcomed by the News Media Association:

This is a thoughtful report which recognises the critical role of written journalism to democracy and sets out a series of detailed recommendations, many of which respond directly to the proposals put forward by the NMA and our members.

These include a Competition & Markets Authority market study into the ‘complex and opaque’ online advertising market, new measures aimed at constraining the behaviour of the online platforms, an examination of the BBC’s impact on commercial publishers, funding support for local news publishers and tax reliefs such as extending VAT zero rating for online news publications.

The BBC, who were criticised in the report as “an obstacle” to commercial news providers, responded:

We’re planning a full evaluation of the partnerships later this year. Like the review, we believe in strong local journalism and have been looking at how best to develop the work we have begun with the industry and will have more to say in the near future.

However, there is no evidence of the BBC crowding out other providers. This was looked at extensively during charter review. It’s vital that people of all ages have access to impartial news which is relevant to them and we provide younger audiences with a wide range of stories.

“We’re happy to look at what more we can do to share our technical and digital expertise for the benefit of local publishers but, as the review itself says, any curtailing of the BBC’s news offer would be counterproductive.

The Government will now consider all of the recommendations in more detail. To inform this, the Culture Secretary will write immediately to the Competition and Markets Authority, Ofcom and the Chair of the Charity Commission to open discussions about how best to take forward the recommendations which fall within their remits. The Government will respond fully to the report later this year.

Dame Frances Cairncross said of the report:

The proposals I have put forward have the potential to improve the outlook for high quality journalism. They are designed to encourage new models to emerge, with the help of innovation not just in technology but in business systems and journalistic techniques.

DCMS Secretary of State Jeremy Wright added:

A healthy democracy needs high quality journalism to thrive and this report sets out the challenges to putting our news media on a stronger and more sustainable footing, in the face of changing technology and rising disinformation. There are some things we can take action on immediately while others will need further careful consideration with stakeholders on the best way forward.

Read the the full report.

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