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Cairncross Review

Volume 795: debated on Tuesday 12 February 2019


My Lords, I see that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, has decided to take flight. With the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend Jeremy Wright, the Secretary of State for DCMS:

“With your permission, I would like to make a Statement about the publication of the Cairncross review. I would like to thank Dame Frances Cairncross for leading the review, along with the expert panel and officials who have worked with her to develop it.

This review comes at an important time. In her report, Dame Frances paints a vivid picture of the threat to high quality journalism in this country. There are now around 6,000 fewer journalists than there were in 2007. Print circulation of daily national papers fell from 11.5 million in 2008 to 5.8 million in 2018.

In this same time period, circulation for local newspapers has halved. As the review makes clear, there are many reasons for this, but the main driver is a rapid change in how we consume content. The majority of people now read news online, including 91% of 18 to 24 year-olds. As this shift takes place, publishers have struggled to find ways to create sustainable business models in the digital age. As the review sets out, between them, Google and Facebook capture the largest share of online advertising revenue and are an increasingly important channel for the distribution of news content online. Not only this but they hold an array of data on their users that news publishers cannot possibly hope to replicate, which further strengthens their position in the digital advertising market.

This combination of market conditions threatens to undermine the future financial sustainability of journalism. Even publications that have only ever been online are struggling, and this should concern us all. Dame Frances notes that, while high-quality journalism is desirable, there is one type of journalism that society and democracy cannot do without, and that is public interest journalism. This is the type of journalism that can hold the powerful to account and is an essential component of our democracy. It helps us to shine a light on important issues—in communities, in courtrooms in council chambers and in this Chamber. This type of journalism is under threat, especially at the local level. The review cites numerous examples of what happens to communities when a local paper disappears. So Dame Frances’ report comes at a vital time, and I welcome her focus on public interest journalism.

This is clearly an important issue and I wanted to set out to the House today how the Government intend to respond. There are many substantial recommendations in this review. There are some areas where we can take them forward immediately, and other more long-term recommendations on which we will be consulting with stakeholders about the best way forward.

First, I will deal with the recommendations we are able to progress immediately. Online advertising now represents a growing part of the economy and forms an important revenue stream for many publishers. But this burgeoning market is largely opaque and extremely complex, so it is at present impossible to know whether the revenue shares received by news publishers are fair. The review proposes that the Competition and Markets Authority conduct a market study into the digital advertising market. The purpose of this study would be to examine whether the online marketplace is operating effectively, and whether it enables or prevents fair competition. It is right that policymakers and regulators have an accurate understanding of how the market operates and check that it is enabling fair competition, and I have today written to the CMA in support of this study. I will urge Professor Jason Furman to treat the review as additional evidence as part of his ongoing inquiry into digital competition in the UK, which is due to be published in the spring. I also recognise that online advertising has given rise to a wider set of social and economic challenges. My department will therefore conduct a review of how online advertising is regulated, starting in the coming months.

The Cairncross review also cites concerns from publishers about the potential market impact of the BBC on their sustainability. They argue that the BBC’s free-to-access online content makes it harder for publishers to attract subscribers. The review also questions whether the BBC is straying too far into the provision of softer news content, traditionally the preserve of commercial publishers, and suggests this might benefit from the scrutiny of Ofcom. Let me be clear that the Government recognise the strong and central role of the BBC here. As the review states,

“the BBC offers the very thing that this Review aims to encourage: a source of reliable and high quality news, with a focus on objectivity and impartiality, and independent from government”.

However, it is right that the role of the BBC, as a public service broadcaster, be appropriately transparent and clear. The review recommended that:

“Ofcom should assess whether BBC News Online is striking the right balance, between aiming for the widest reach for its own content, and driving traffic from its online site to commercial publishers, particularly local ones”.

Of course, some of these questions were addressed as part of the charter review process, but I have written today to ask Ofcom to look carefully at the review’s recommendations and identify if there are any new concerns deserving attention. For instance, there may be ways in which the BBC could do more to drive traffic to commercial sites, particularly the local press.

Another recommendation from the review was a proposal for two separate forms of tax relief for news publications, one of which is intended to bolster the supply of local and investigative journalism by enabling it to benefit from charitable status. The review noted that in the USA, philanthropic donations provide, on average, 90% of the total revenues of non-profit news publishers. Although we have a different media landscape, as the review sets out, charitable status could reduce the costs for those producing this essential public interest reporting, and pave the way for a new revenue stream through philanthropic donations. I recognise that this avenue has been explored previously and that some hurdles will have to be cleared, but I believe we should pursue it, so I have written to the Charity Commission and look forward to hearing how it can help move this forward.

As I set out earlier, there are also areas where we will need to consult further and respond in further detail. First, Dame Frances recommended the establishment of an institute for public interest news to promote investigative and local journalism. The review proposes that this institute would act as a convener for those organisations with the means to support public interest news, including the BBC and online platforms. It would also be tasked with generating additional finance for the sector, driving innovation through a proposed new fund, and supporting an expansion of the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporting Service. This BBC-funded scheme is a shining example of what can be done. The first of its kind in the industry, it has embedded 150 journalists within local publishers to produce local democracy reporting, particularly relating to local councils. I met some of these reporters last week and they have produced 50,000 stories so far between them—all stories that may not otherwise have been heard. The Government will explore, with others, what more can be done here.

The review also calls upon the Government to do more to incentivise the publishing industry’s transition to digital. It proposes extending the current scope of VAT exemptions so that they apply to online payments for all news content and not simply print news content, and new tax relief for public interest news providers. I am aware that there is passionate support for this within the publishing sector, and we share its ambition for a healthy and sustainable industry. As this House knows, the Government always keep taxes under review, and any decision to amend the UK tax regime is, of course, a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer as part of the annual fiscal cycle. I will be discussing this matter further with industry and my colleagues at the Treasury.

I want to highlight two recommendations in the review that cover similar ground to work already taking place within government. One is the review’s sensible proposal that the Government develop a media literacy strategy, working with the range of organisations already active in this space. Evidence suggests that there is also a correlation between media literacy and greater propensity to pay for news, so improving media literacy will also have an impact on the sustainability of the press. Making sure people have the skills they need to separate fact from fiction is the key to long-term success in tackling this issue, and I welcome the focus that Dame Frances has placed on it. We welcome this recommendation, which relates closely to the Government’s ongoing work to combat disinformation. Last month, my honourable friend the Minister for Digital and the Creative Industries hosted a round table on media literacy, and the Government are actively looking at what more we can do to support industry efforts in this area.

The other recommendation is the review’s call for the creation of new codes of conduct between publishers and the online platforms which distribute their content. These would cover issues relating to the indexing of content on platforms and its presentation, as well as the need for advanced warning about algorithm changes likely to affect a publisher. The development of these codes would be overseen by a regulator.

The review also proposes that regulatory oversight be introduced as part of a ‘news quality obligation’ upon platforms. This would require that platforms improve how their users understand the origin of an article of news and the trustworthiness of its source. Dame Frances recognises that platforms are already starting to accept responsibility in this regard. These two proposals deserve the Government’s full consideration and we will examine how they can inform our approach. This includes our work as part of the online harms White Paper, due to be published shortly.

This report sets out a path to help us put our media on a stronger and more sustainable footing. However, Dame Frances is clear that her review is just one contribution to the debate. We cannot turn back the clock and there is no magic formula to address the systemic changes the industry faces, but it is the role of any responsible Government to play an active part in supporting public interest journalism. We will consider this review’s contents carefully and engage with press publishers, online platforms, regulators, academics, the public and Members of this House as we consider the way forward. I remain open to further proposals that may go beyond the recommendations or scope of this review.

I know that this issue is of great concern to Members across the House, and today’s review is an important milestone. At the heart of any thriving civil society is a free and vibrant press. The Government—and, I have no doubt, the House—are committed to supporting it through changing times and ensuring that it can continue to do its job. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement and I guess we begin with the remark at the very end, which indicates that the genie cannot be put back into the bottle: we are where we are and we must look at this matter from here. I cannot, for my part, look at a consideration of this kind other than from the point of view of small local communities whose service—the service they receive from local press—will be radically affected by recent developments; indeed, it has been already. While the genie cannot be put back into the bottle, we should not hide from view, or fail to prioritise in our consideration, those communities whose cohesion is being reduced by the developments we are talking about.

Dame Frances has done a splendid job. I went to one of the consultation sessions she held here in Parliament and it is clear that she has these concerns too. Written journalism, in print or online, supplies the largest quantity of original journalism and is most at risk: the figures have been quoted. The reduction in public interest reporting, which again was particularly concentrated on in the report and in the Statement, seems to have an effect on community engagement, and that concerns me greatly. Local democracy, such as voter turnout and the accountability of local institutions, has been particularly undermined. The operation of the market that has taken so much advertising away from traditional local newspapers can easily be identified as a contributing factor—indeed, an overriding factor—in this demise. The report sets out some concrete proposals about how we might look at the question. I have not yet found myself able to intellectualise what can be done about the fact that advertising is being taken away through these platforms, even through the BBC’s local news availability projects, and how it can be restored, other than perhaps finding some way of taxing, controlling or regulating the way the market is operating—and we know that that is a difficult concept for many people.

The digital revolution has not just affected how people arrive at news online; it has also changed their habits and their attitudes to news. This, of course, is the problem. As it says in the report, people now skim for their news or scroll for their news; they passively absorb news. An increasing percentage of those who take news in whatever form are worried about “fake news”. People read material shown to them by platforms largely based on data analytics and algorithms. There is something terrifically unnerving about that. In this and other debates, week after week, we have heard concerns of this kind expressed from a number of directions.

We are told that editors no longer pay attention to how stories are ranked. They no longer take much time to consider how to display stories on their homepage. Instead, they are led by the study of the market, habits, customs and conventions. They let their news follow the way things are in the marketplace. In addition to that, mergers and acquisitions by digital giants have meant that more than half of all digital advertising revenues are now hoovered up by just two companies. In the light of all this debilitation—and there is so much more that could be rehearsed—I ask the Minister how we can redress the balance.

I began my working life as a reporter on a local newspaper. Every week, I was responsible for the front page of the Burry Port Star. It was an organ of considerable influence—

Now your Lordships are rising to the bait, which I appreciate. It was, of course, the same newspaper in Llanelli—and in Llangennech and Llwchwr—but the front page was different. When somebody had moved out of a house, a boat had sunk, somebody had passed the 11-plus or there was to be a flower-arranging display in one of the local chapels, it was my job to tell the community about it.

Community cohesion is undergirded by an active press. None of us should simply take for granted that its disappearance will not have effects. How can the Government address this? The BBC has embedded reporters into local areas, which is brilliant. How much more of this can we hope to do? What about the idea of a regulator, which was picked out from the report by the press this morning? How effective will such a regulator be? What will his or her terms of reference be? Will there be teeth to the job that that person is asked to do?

There are so many questions, but above and beyond them is a very real concern. This is a matter which belongs to Parliament as a whole—and to bipartisan approaches—and is a real problem at a local level. I conclude my remarks by emphasising once again the levels of concern, the health of communities and the need for instruments such as a local newspaper to forge an identity for a locality. Burry Port was never Llangennech, and Llwchwr was never Llanelli, because the press helped us give expression to a real sense of identity. How on behalf of the Government will the Minister—and how will we as a Parliament—make practical proposals to achieve these noble ends?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, paints a romantic and nostalgic picture of the local press, and he is right to do so. But, in trying to solve the problems that face us in somehow helping the Burry Port Star, we must beware. The press owners have come with a begging bowl. They earlier proclaimed their resistance to any government interference, but quite ready to dip their hands into the public purse are very large and rich companies, many of which have delivered redundancy after redundancy to local papers in favour of their shareholders.

That is one of the reasons why local journalism is in the state that it is in. I also suggest that the National Union of Journalists might be added to the list of people to consult that the Minister read out. There is a serious challenge to local media. Dame Frances set it out very bleakly in her report and the Minister repeated it. There is massive technological change and that impacts on how news is received and—particularly with the under-25s—how it is digested.

I welcome some of the actions announced by the Minister to refer some of the recommendations to relevant bodies. However, the ambitions of the Government and newspaper proprietors would be more credible if they had not been so eager to bury the Leveson report and ignore its call for the establishment of a regulator set up by royal charter which could do many of the tasks called for in this report.

As I said, freedom from Government does not seem to stop the press barons from dipping into the public purse. Therefore, although I welcome the recommendations on digital and media literacy, online advertising and news quality obligations, we should be hard-nosed about how and where tax relief and innovation fund money is spent. It is not there simply to line the pockets of Newsquest, JPI Media and Reach, which are all big, profitable companies that have taken the lion’s share of the existing Local Democracy Reporting Service, which costs the BBC £8 million.

Some of the powers advocated in this report could be taken on by the Press Recognition Panel, the independent body established by Parliament under royal charter. The recommendations on how to bring the FANGs within the rule of law go wider than the issues covered by this report but its recommendations on new codes of conduct for online platforms are to be welcomed.

But what do we find in the report? As usual, it is a quick dive to try to weaken the BBC. In almost 40 years of being involved in this I have explained to various media proprietors that 90 years ago a Conservative Government had the common sense to nationalise the BBC as a public service broadcaster with a mandate that consciously distorted the market in favour of public service broadcasting. They want to have a go at the BBC online because it carries the same credibility and weight as the broadcast BBC. I hope that although the Minister has asked Ofcom to look at this, Ofcom will be very sceptical about trying to weaken one of the strongest public service journalism outlets in this country, one which should be defended.

I hope also that the Minster will use his good influence to secure a full day’s debate in this House. This is an important report; so is the one published today by the Press Recognition Panel. This is an ongoing debate and the knowledge that exists in this House would be of benefit in taking a very wide agenda forward.

I thank the noble Lords. I entirely concur with the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, and the emphasis that he laid on local journalism and its impact on and importance to local democracy and indeed to wider societal issues that arise at a local level. To that extent, I believe that we are all pleased with the steps taken by the BBC with regard to the Local Democracy Reporting Service, which has been effective. The conundrum now is how to redress the balance. I believe that a starting point is for the CMA, which has experience and expertise in this area, to look at how the market is working. That will not be a solution in itself but it will give us a starting point from which we can work. As regards a regulator, that is a medium-term or longer-term ambition. Again, we will have to look at how we can develop that, but we are conscious of its importance.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, made the perfectly valid point that many of our printed press corporations remain profitable. The difficulty is the disparity between the profitability in some areas and the poverty in others, as illustrated recently by the demise of one of the largest publishers of local newspapers in the country. In so far as the press industry seeks to, as the noble Lord put it, put its fingers into the tax pot, it is fair to say that he can anticipate that the Treasury will be pretty hard-nosed about that. We will seek to ensure that any benefits that can be provided go to the right place for the development of public-interest journalism.

I do not see this as an attempt to weaken the BBC, although there might be issues there that we will look at. I appreciate the importance of the BBC as a source of reliable journalism, but perhaps there are areas where it goes where it would not have gone before. I am not sure that it is necessarily in the public interest to have “Love Island” news online—although I may be corrected by some. It seems to me that these are areas where, for example, more commercial enterprises might be allowed into the market. I will just raise that as an issue.

I welcome the comments that have been made. We will want to review matters. The noble Lord raised the question of a debate. Of course, we have the forthcoming White Paper as well, and it may be that, in the light of that, a wider debate will be appropriate.

My Lords, I spent much of my career in broadcast journalism in a period characterised by high-volume, high-quality journalism, well resourced both in broadcast and in print. There is still some good journalism in all media, but let us recognise that the bus left long ago and that there has been a vast reduction in the volume of quality journalism and a vast reduction in the necessary resources that are always needed to produce journalism of high quality.

In the last hour or so I have quickly scanned this ambitious report with its far-reaching conclusions and recommendations, not all of which immediately strike me as right. I echo what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said. There are few matters as important for this House as those set out in this report, and this issue cannot be dealt with here in a few moments of questions and answers—so I too ask the Government to consider setting aside a serious and substantial amount of time to deal at length and properly with these issues.

I thank the noble Lord for his contribution. As I have already indicated, I understand why this House is asking for further time to consider the detail of this report. It appears to me that that might be appropriate once we have the White Paper that I referred to earlier and when we have made progress on the initial stages of implementing the recommendations of the report, perhaps setting out a plan for how we intend to take forward its longer-term recommendations. However, I am sure that those responsible for the time of this House will have heard the observations. It is beyond my pay grade but I am confident that they will have listened.

My Lords, I join my noble and learned friend in congratulating Dame Frances on producing a compelling report, which sets out both starkly and boldly the real commercial pressures which are facing all publishers. I declare my interest as deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group. Given the scale of the challenges and the punishing pace of change in the industry, which come over so clearly in this report, does my noble and learned friend agree with me that speed is now of the essence and that the most important thing is to move urgently to implement, where possible, some of the review’s major recommendations, particularly in areas such as VAT and taxation, which could bring immediate commercial benefit and allow publishers to invest in the quality investigative journalism that the report highlights?

In other areas, there is much for the CMA and Ofcom to undertake. Does my noble and learned friend believe that the CMA has the capacity to deal swiftly with issues surrounding the advertising market in view of its post-Brexit responsibilities, and does Ofcom have the powers needed to review the BBC online without the need for further legislative change?

My Lords, I can advise that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has written today to the chair of the CMA, inviting him to respond as quickly as possible as to whether it is the view of the CMA that it can take on these issues, and he has also written today to the chair of the Charity Commission—so we are intent on taking these issues forward as swiftly as we can.

Sitting suspended.