Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking in response to The Cairncross Review: a sustainable future for journalism.
My Lords, I gently remind the House of the three-minute time limit. This is a time-limited debate, and it would be helpful if Members could please stick to that limit.
My Lords, it has been a year since Dame Frances Cairncross published her review, A Sustainable Future for Journalism. Cairncross’s remit was
“to consider the sustainability of the production and distribution of high-quality journalism, and especially the future of the press”.
The review’s six chapters outline: the importance of high-quality journalism to democracy; the rapidly changing market; the plummeting revenues of publishers; the huge power of the online platforms; and the need to protect public interest news. Sadly, the Government’s response does not comprehensively answer Dame Frances’s nine recommendations, nor does it fully address the two intrinsically linked systemic points that she highlights—notably, the impact of platforms as mediators on the quality of the news and the asymmetry of power between platform and publishers when it comes to revenue.
I declare my interests as set out in the register, particularly as a member of the House of Lords’ digital democracy inquiry committee and as chair of the 5Rights Foundation.
The most urgent issue raised repeatedly by Cairncross is how new distribution models for high-quality journalism have eroded revenue. This is a sector being hollowed out before our eyes, with reduced resources to hold institutions to account, as the platform model drives down quality in pursuit of profit. In her introduction, Cairncross points out:
“People read more sources of news online, but spend less time reading it than they did in print. They increasingly skim, scroll or passively absorb news, much of it ‘pushed’ news”,
“based on data analytics and algorithms, the operation of which are often opaque.”
Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube measure views, likes and retweets, not the quality of the news they share. Under the guise of being “user first”, they are focused on building algorithms to increase engagement and, with it, their revenues—not on people’s understanding of what is happening in the world around them.
A user journey with a diet of financial, entertainment, political and international news as readers made their way from front page to sports page, has been replaced by unbundled news: bite-sized snacks driven by an opaque list of inputs that optimise user engagement; it is often difficult for readers to know or recall the source. Disaggregated news driven by commercial concerns necessarily interferes with a user journey based on editorial or public interest values. This business model enables disinformation to masquerade as news. It is not without consequences: the victims are children who get measles, pensioners who give up their savings and individuals who vote on false promises.
“New codes of conduct to rebalance the relationship between publishers and online platforms”,
underpinned by a news quality obligation under regulatory oversight. While the government response has warm words about these codes, it is unclear whether they are to be put on a statutory footing, silent on who will have oversight and offers no timetable. The news quality obligation becomes a vague sense that platforms must
“help users identify the reliability and trustworthiness of news sources”,
with allusions to the online harms White Paper. I do not understand why the Government commissioned a review on such an urgent matter, only for us to wait a year to hear that we will wait several more. Can the Minister outline the steps government will take to introduce new, effective codes of conduct and when we will begin to see them enforced? Also, what obstacles does she see to introducing a news quality obligation in response to the review, rather than waiting for an online harms Bill whose effect may not be felt for another couple of years?
As classified and display ads have moved wholesale from publishers to platforms, particularly Google, where targeted advertising is king, the duopoly of Google and Facebook have become eye-wateringly rich and the news sector increasingly poor. Meanwhile, news producers remain at the mercy of news feed algorithms that can, at the whim of a platform, be changed for no transparent reason, giving platforms the power to literally bury the news. Cairncross’s observation that the opaque advertising supply chain is weighted against content creators is not new. It was central to the Communications Committee’s report, UK Advertising in a Digital Age; it has been the subject of much complaint by advertisers themselves; and it is well laid out in the interim review from the CMA.
This dysfunctional business model hits the local press the hardest. The Yorkshire Evening Post showed its societal value by having local reporters when it broke the story of a child being treated on an NHS hospital floor. The subsequent false discrediting of the story on social media showed the financial value in misinformation. The editor’s plea to the digital democracy committee was that the Post needed a fairer share of the value of the content it produces. Without it, it simply cannot continue to put reporters on the front line.
Cairncross recommends an innovation fund, VAT exemption to match offline publishing and allowing local papers charitable status. The first of these is being done by Nesta, the second is being looked at by the Treasury, and the last the Government rejected outright, but at the heart of her recommendations was that the CMA should use its powers to investigate the advertising supply chain to ensure that the market be fair and transparent. Given the unanimity of this view, and the disproportionate control of the platforms, will the Minister tell the House whether she would like to see—as many of us would —the CMA move to a full market investigation to clean up the advertising supply chain?
Cairncross urged the extension of the Local Democracy Reporting Service but this has been interpreted by the Government as an extension of the BBC local news partnerships, with no additional funding, This is not an adequate response to the crisis in local journalism, nor does it fulfil the Government’s own promise to advocate for voters outside the metropole, whose local interests may be too small to be of financial value in the attention economy of the multinationals. Leaving whole parts of the country out of sight is not sustainable for our democracy.
The review also called for an Ofcom inquiry into the impact of BBC News on the commercial sector. However, I would argue that of greater concern are the recent announcements of large-scale cuts to BBC News. Amid the crisis in the local press, it is simply not the right time to undermine the BBC. In an era of catastrophically low trust, BBC News is uniquely trusted by 79% of the population—a statistic that any platform or politician would beg for.
Finally, the commitment from the Government to support media literacy is hugely welcome. The ability to identify the trustworthiness of a source and to understand the platform’s algorithms, how they impact on what you see and who benefits from your interactions is vital. But I urge the noble Baroness to make clear in her answer that media literacy is no substitute for cleaning up the hostile environment in which the news now sits.
I asked Frances Cairncross to comment on the government response to her review. She said it was
“of particular regret that the government rejected out of hand the idea of an Institute of public interest journalism.”
On another occasion, one might underline further the responsibility of the press to uphold their own editorial standards to a greater extent and better fulfil their own public interest role but, for today, I wish to congratulate Dame Frances on categorically making the case for high-quality journalism as a crucial safeguard to democracy.
I look forward to hearing from many knowledgeable colleagues and thank them in advance for their contributions. Since the Cairncross Review was published, the news sector has become more fragile, while the platforms’ power has become entrenched. I hope that the Minister—delightfully making her maiden speech in this debate—finds a way of reassuring the House that the Government intend to tackle the systemic issues that Cairncross has identified with the seriousness and urgency they require. I beg to move.
My Lords, I congratulate my friend the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on securing the debate and her introduction to it. I must begin by reminding your Lordships that I am also a member of the Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies, and of my entry in the register as a chief officer of Tes Global, which publishes the TES magazine, a specialist education publication.
At Tes, we continue to see the value of print, but we have had to build a vibrant digital business behind a great media brand because, of course, journalism has changed. Our journalists see the traffic numbers; they are trained in search engine optimisation; they need video and audio skills. It is no longer enough to be great questioners and writers. While the last big Google algorithm change helpfully puts a premium on authority and trust, our readers are less likely to bother with long-form journalism: 80% of our news traffic is from mobile. Migrating from a print business to a digital one has been costly in investment and revenue. We have had to rapidly evolve. A year ago, we sold the Times Higher Education, which had substantially become a data insights business behind its great journalism. Tes is now largely a school software and training business behind a brand of leading education journalism.
This is all fine, but the need to resource costly investigative journalism is a cornerstone of democracy. The Select Committee that I am on would probably not have been formed by your Lordships if it was not for the Guardian investing in Carole Cadwalladr’s time to investigate Cambridge Analytica. This is at the heart of why the Secretary of State—I very much welcome her to the House—should act more substantially on the excellent Cairncross report.
This was vividly brought home to me last night when looking—I was at home—at the Lords Library briefing on the coronavirus. I will read one paragraph towards the end:
“Since the outbreak of the disease, various organisations and commentators have raised concerns about the spread of disinformation relating to 2019-nCoV. In general, much of the disinformation on the topic has focused on: false cures (for example, drinking bleach); the spread of the disease (that it is a bioweapon); and speculation as to its origin (one suggested cause is 5G). The scale of the problem is such that the WHO has labelled it an ‘infodemic’: an over-abundance of information that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance.”
The lack of authoritative information and the disinformation online is distracting public health officials, to the extent that in Malaysia a Minister has said that it has become a bigger problem than the virus itself. He had to go out and tell people that it did not cause others to walk undead in the streets.
The Minister needs to ask herself: what happens as and when we face a real health emergency here? What of an impoverished BBC, and what happens when the value of the news media shifts in Government? It would then no longer be about malleability in winning elections and referenda but about suddenly needing to win back trust—the lost trust, which becomes something we need as a matter of life and death. We urgently need a national media literacy campaign, like that in Finland, and credible government action on this critical issue.
My Lords, I join the noble Lord in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for this debate. Its popularity means that we will have to do speed debating, as the noble Lord, Lord Birt, once suggested. We welcome the Government’s positive response to supporting Nesta’s pilot innovation fund, focused on improving the supply of public interest news, and we welcome that the Government are considering removing VAT on digital news publications. We on these Benches would like VAT to be removed from all digital publications. Please include e-books as well. Does the Secretary of State not agree?
We welcome the initiative to develop an online media literacy strategy and that the Government accept that social media and news aggregation platforms and companies have a duty of care to co-operate in creating a sustainable environment for news in the digital age. The online harms White Paper is referred to as the vehicle, but where is the Bill? Will the Secretary of State enlighten us on that?
The Cairncross Review is concerned about the sustainability of good journalism. Since the Government are intent on getting rid of suggested mechanisms to expose and punish unethical and illegal conduct, and establish incentives for news publishers to produce quality journalism, how do they intend to go forward? The Secretary of State says in her response that:
“At the heart of any thriving democracy is a free and vibrant press.”
None of us here would disagree with that—nor, I am afraid, with her when she continues:
“in this country its future is under threat.”
However, we might disagree about exactly how and why.
This is a turbulent time for the press. Quite apart from the backdrop to the Cairncross Review of unprecedented challenges to the future of news provision, buffeted by internet competition that represents on the one hand a financial pincer movement and on the other competitive and often fake news, the cornerstone of our “free and vibrant press” that is public service broadcasting is under attack from the Government. The PM’s communications team has banned Ministers from appearing on BBC’s “Today” programme, although I noted that the Secretary of State was allowed to take part this morning, if only, in her characteristically gentle way, to threaten the BBC. The Government have boycotted ITV’s “Good Morning Britain”, and declined to appear on Channel 4 since before the election. How does that behaviour allow journalists to do what she correctly states is their “vital” purpose; namely, of
“holding power to account and keeping the public informed of local, national and international issues”?
Returning to the BBC, which is under attack when it is needed more than ever, the Secretary of State uttered supportive words, but it is actions that matter. Will she confirm that the BBC’s scope and mission will not be changed by the Government before the next charter review, and that she will listen to her noble friend Lord Grade about decriminalisation of the licence fee? The other day, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, told us to beware of the slippery slope. Will she listen to him?
My Lords, I will do my best to keep the speed debating going. It is some time since I was directly involved in the affairs of the press as chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. Back then, the name Google was barely mentioned and Facebook had not even been invented. Times have changed, but one thing remains constant; the crucial importance of a free press in a democracy.
I have learned for sure over many years that you cannot have a free press unless you have one that is commercially viable. Newspapers have to be able to make profits to survive. That is what is now in jeopardy because the press is under greater commercial pressure than at any time in its history. Newspaper, print and online revenues have more than halved since the last decade as the platforms have taken a bigger and bigger share of the advertising market. That cannot go on.
The Cairncross Review lays out the position in grim reality, particularly the fate of the local and regional papers that are the cornerstones of local democracy, and I pay tribute to the analysis that Dame Frances produced. I support most of her recommendations, but one is missing: we must ensure support for the industry as it consolidates, which it surely must.
When I was chairman of the PCC, there was a significant range of publishers, including a large number of independent local publishers. Over the last few years, consolidation has happened so that there are now far fewer. But there is a way to go if newspapers are to survive and the closure of titles is to stop. There must be rationalisation if publishers are to have the strength to take on the competition.
There are two reasons why consolidation is important. First, as happened in the combination of the Trinity Mirror titles and the Express, it would allow companies to deliver cost savings in a range of back-office areas. The other area relates to the new reality of competition. Two decades ago, competition was between newspapers —the Telegraph and the Times, the Mail and the Express and so forth. But today, the competition is with the giant tech platforms that are vacuuming up the advertising market at an ever-increasing rate. Publishers need the strength to be able to take them on, not each other, and that strength comes from the combined weight of consolidated, strong, successful companies that can do that.
There needs to be a thorough review and reform of the media competition and ownership regime that allows newspaper publishers to reduce costs, increase revenues and invest in the journalism that will allow them to take on the global competition without any impact on media plurality. One of the greatest dangers we all face is where legislation, because of the time it takes to put on to the statute book, lags behind the reality of the market. Our legislation in this area is ages old and I hope that my noble friend will call for swift action when looking at the Cairncross recommendations. It would help so much in saving a free press. If we do not, it may be too late.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lady Kidron for her timely debate and draw attention to my interests in the register, including as board director of Twitter and adviser to a bunch of media start-ups, predominantly through Founders Factory. Therefore, noble Lords will see immediately that I am entirely conflicted. On the one hand, I have seen many times the extreme benefits that technology has brought to the vibrant media sector. My dear friend Amelia Gentleman should be name-checked in this Chamber. She single-handedly discovered the Windrush scandal and would say herself that using Twitter and other mechanisms to reach the people she was trying to interview and to build relationships with them was immensely important to her journalism. But, clearly, as well described by my noble friend, we face a very complex landscape. That is why I will focus my brief remarks on innovation.
I was impressed by the £10 million commitment to innovation, but it is 10 times too little. While it is of course important to defend the old world, we must build a positive future for a new kind of journalism. It does not mean a journalism without integrity, which is not based on investigation or that has no strong local news element. But my reading of the very important work that Dame Frances Cairncross did was that there was a defence of the old, perhaps with a lack of creativity about the building of the new.
We need to put innovation far more deeply at the heart of this sector. I am lucky enough to work with a bunch of start-ups from many different angles. One that I would name check, Serelay, is building an amazing weapon against the spread of misinformation and fake news. Another, Black Ballad, is building long-form journalism for black women in Britain. They are wildly different, but both are going to contribute on the problems and challenges that are described here.
Innovation will help us build a strong and robust sector, but it will also move the sector on. I have very much enjoyed the long-form, slightly different-take journalism started by James Harding, the ex-director of BBC News, at Tortoise. It is not for everybody, but I find myself drawn to it many times. I feel that we need to put more investment into innovation in the sector, both from existing organisations but also through organisations such as Nesta, where feet must be held to the fire to make sure that the investments are meaningful and contributing to the challenges that Dame Frances Cairncross described.
The second mode of innovation comes from companies and media organisations themselves. I was heartened to read about the recent experiment in the Times. Noble Lords may raise their eyes to heaven when I link data science and journalism in this Chamber, but surprising results happened. The paper did a long-form project where it looked at all the articles spread out across the web, thinking that volume of content would lead to volume of revenue—but it was wrong. The Times has dramatically changed the nature of its journalism by looking at what people are actually reading. Guess what—that was original articles, deep investigative journalism and journalism that was new and interesting. So the paper reorganised its newsroom to reflect that. Innovation is the way that we must build a new future for journalism.
My Lords, my favourite newspapers are the Racing Post and the Brecon and Radnor Express. How do I love thee, Brecon and Radnor? Let me give an example. Not so long ago, there was a story that police were asking the public to come forward with information following the theft of a pint of milk from a doorstep in Llandrindod Wells. That may seem a purely trivial thing. I live in Streatham, where we have been reading about horrible murders and large numbers of police caught up in trying to stop terrorism. That is one reality of our national life. I find it refreshing to be reminded that bits of the country are not like this. There are bits of the country where sensible and sane people mostly go about their legal business so that the police have time to issue appeals for information on the theft of a bottle of milk.
Dame Frances concentrates very much on local and regional newspapers, although I think her terms of reference allowed her to go much wider. I have some sympathy with the dilemma in which she found herself. She is a distinguished, serious journalist—or was, when she worked in the trade. She therefore values serious journalism. That is one side of it. The other side is that she was a journalist on the Economist. I was lucky enough to work with her for a while. The Economist teaches one that certain doctrines are absolutely unbreakable. One of them is, “Watch out for public subsidy, which usually goes down the drain.” It can have serious side effects and take money out of poor taxpayers’ pockets and put it into those of rich newspaper owners—and she was obviously cautious throughout that she was going to do that.
I am delighted that the Government have accepted most of her recommendations. The question is whether they live up to the task she was set of saving serious journalism, particularly since the Government have turned down out of hand one of her recommendations for an institute for serious journalism—I cannot recall her exact words, but let us call it that. I like the report and agree with the Government that most of its recommendations should be accepted, but I seriously ask whether this is too little, too late.
My Lords, I declare my interest as deputy chairman of the Telegraph Media Group and my other media interests. I am also a member of the Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies.
Dame Frances’s review was the first time that the Government acknowledged that the sustainability of our media is in jeopardy and that public policymakers needed to do something to help. Her report was welcomed across the industry because it identified practical steps to support the media on its path to fundamental change. The causes of the stress on the sector are straightforward. The news media faces brutal competition on two fronts. On one side are Google and Facebook—70% of UK online advertising spend now flows through this duopoly. This means that they take over £9 billion a year in digital ad revenues while the news media companies that create content for them earn only around £500 million. Then there is competition from the BBC, whose guaranteed £3.8 billion income produces a massive market distortion that makes it challenging to grow subscription businesses.
The Cairncross recommendations are a step in the right direction, but I have two points of concern. One is time: Cairncross was established in 2018, reported in early 2019 and the Government have only just responded at the start of 2020. Most of the recommendations have still to take practical effect. The grim truth is that help is needed now if many local newspapers are to survive while they bridge the gap between print legacy and digital future. My noble friend understands that. Will she tell us more about the timetable to implementation, particularly on the issue of VAT zero-rating for digital products, which could make a rapid difference to businesses building subscription models, and other financial measures, including tax reliefs, which will give time for the report’s structural measures to take effect?
My second concern is clarity. The Cairncross recommendations are just part of a plethora of other reviews, consultations and policy documents. We have the Furman review, initiatives from the Information Commissioner, reviews by the DCMS on brand safety and the supply chain, an investigation by the CMA, ongoing work from Ofcom, and the online harms White Paper. These are all important pieces of work, but there is real danger that we cannot see the wood for the trees. Too many initiatives from too many separate departments and organisations present a real risk that nothing will end up happening or that it will simply take too long.
Does my noble friend agree that the best way forward is to identify a handful of strategic issues where action to support the industry during its transformation can be taken speedily and preferably without the need for legislation, which will take far too long? I agree entirely with my noble friend Lord Wakeham that a consolidation review of ownership laws must be one of them.
There is speculation that my noble friend does not wish to continue in this role. She would be much missed. If she does move on, will she consider leaving a note in her desk for her successor saying simply, “The media needs your help. Many local newspapers face closure. Other publishers struggle to support high-quality journalism. There is no time to lose if we are to save our democracy. Please act now to help them”?
My Lords, I am disappointed that the Government have rejected the flagship recommendation from the Cairncross Review of an institute of public interest news. It was the only recommendation to promise direct support for public interest news. Its proposed role was to draw together many elements of the other recommendations, including gathering funding from other sectors, the administration of the innovations fund and the management of the local democracy reporters’ scheme.
An institute of public interest news could be established entirely independently of the state, much like the press recognition panel established after the Leveson inquiry. Will the Minister explain the Government’s plans to directly support journalism in the public interest through new organisations and initiatives?
It is significant that nowhere in her report did Dame Frances propose any form of direct support for the three companies, Reach, Newsquest and JPI Media, which dominate the local newspaper sector. These companies own close to 70% of print titles and associated websites. They rely on business models of acquisition, consolidation, and ultimately redundancies and closures, which are seen as destructive of journalism in the sector and have been criticised by the National Union of Journalists, among others. It is evident that these three companies are part of the problem and not part of the solution.
Other government pledges will consider VAT relief for online newspapers. Such a proposal, while having virtues, could disproportionately benefit the companies that own national titles and run successful news media websites—not only those companies that produce public interest journalism and own local titles. Some of the companies that would have most to gain are the very same ones defending extensive phone hacking and other litigation to this day.
Will the Minister explain what protections the Government will put in place to ensure that public subsidies and other support go to the local, independent, public interest-focused news providers that need it and are not diverted to unreformed companies with rather dubious ethical records, which remain the subject of sensitive litigation, including allegations that they covered up wrongdoing and continue to do so?
I end by reminding the House of how I became interested in this subject. First, I gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry as a victim of phone hacking and intrusion that was not in the public interest. Secondly, some of my concerns—quite differently—are about the vulnerable situations that people with learning difficulties, whom I particularly speak up for, find themselves in online through a lack of their own media literacy and adequate support.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for initiating this debate. I should declare an interest as the chairman from the beginning of this year of IPSO, the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which regulates 1,500 print titles and 11,000 online titles comprising 95% of national daily newspapers—by circulation—and the majority of local and regional newspapers.
IPSO contributes to standards in journalism by two principal methods. It does so, first, by responding to complaints and resolving or adjudicating in them in accordance with the editors’ code. It has the power to issue private advisory notices and to initiate standards inquiries in appropriate circumstances. The second principal area of work is in relation to standards. We have published guidance in a number of areas; for example, the reporting of suicide and the reporting of major disasters in the wake of the Kerslake report on the terrorist attack at Manchester Arena.
The Government’s response to the Cairncross Review defers the treatment of a significant number of issues. We may have to wait for the online harms Bill, the CMA investigation into the relationships between online platforms and digital advertising, and the Furman review.
IPSO believes that the sustainability of high-quality journalism relies significantly on consumers’ ability to identify it. It was in this context that IPSO launched its IPSO mark, a visual symbol that can be used by all our member publications to show their commitment to professional standards and to a curated, edited and regulated product. It is something of an irony that there are those who criticise the quality of regulation in relation to the conventional printed press yet say remarkably little about the need for regulation of the vast quantity of information or so-called news that can be accessed online without any form of regulation or quality assurance.
IPSO is pleased that many initiatives have been launched better to educate and inform the public about fake news and the potential harms involved in using social media, and it applauds the work done by a number of bodies to address this problem.
IPSO believes that it can make a major contribution to UK journalism. As a body, it has greater powers than its predecessors. In particular, it has required 20 front-page corrections and offers low-cost arbitration to those who might have taken a paper to court but were unable to do so. All this should help to produce journalism of a higher quality and that is accountable, but does not at the same time inhibit the freedom of the press. The giants of social media have, in my view, at last begun to respond to the challenge of the posting of often unreliable news and disinformation. If they fail to make real progress, the Government may have to intervene substantially.
The Cairncross Review rightly emphasised the importance of journalism and in particular regional journalism. There is plainly a need to develop media literacy and to encourage readers and consumers to identify when they can rely on a source of news. IPSO has a significant contribution to make in this regard.
My Lords, I have to say that I am disappointed by some aspects of the Government’s response to the Cairncross Review. Where it called for charitable status to be more widely available for publishers who choose to operate for the public good, the Government have rejected that recommendation as well as that calling for targeted funding to support high-quality news. Instead, the few initiatives from the review supported by the Government provide little incentive or encouragement to improve the quality of news provision.
The Government pledge to consider extending the VAT zero rating to online publications, which I welcome in principle. However, we must not forget that some of the largest titles in our national press are still subject to phone hacking litigation, a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Faulks on his appointment as chairman of IPSO and pay tribute to his predecessor, Sir Alan Moses, who skilfully but unsuccessfully engaged with me and tried to persuade me not to press to have Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act commenced. I wish my noble friend good luck in his new role.
However, it cannot be right that my noble friend the Secretary of State, metaphorically speaking, holds a loaded gun to the head of the press in the form of the power to commence Section 40 forthwith. We must either commence the carrot component of Section 40 or repeal all of it. We cannot do nothing.
Finally, I welcome the Government’s pronouncements on defending media freedom internationally and the work they have done in this area to date. I repeat my thanks to the Government for accepting last year my amendment that protects journalists from accidental arrest at the border when returning from certain prohibited conflict zones. I have one question for my noble friend the Minister: will the Government change the policy regarding FCO travel advice to reflect recent attacks on, or murders of, journalists when nobody has been held to account? When such events occur, it is clear evidence that the state concerned is in deep trouble.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for securing this debate. I guess I could say that I have fought in both camps. Until 2012, I was editor of the Guardian Weekly, in some ways a very traditional media publication, but I also hand-coded my first website in 1999, so I have always been on both sides.
I want to focus on a couple of points that other noble Lords have not covered in the short time available. I welcome particularly the Government’s commitment in their response to a White Paper on media literacy by the summer. I know that many government schedules are very pressed at the moment, so I hope the Minister can reassure us that that will be stuck to. The review says that media literacy programmes have often focused on young people. Will this strategy cover people of all ages and not just young people? The Cairncross report said that the institute for public interest news—I share the regret expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, that the Government have dismissed that as a possibility —should be doing the work on adult media literacy, so where are we going to do it if not through that mechanism? I spend a lot of time in schools, universities and colleges, and young people are considerably more media literate than many of their elders. They are very aware of politics. The young climate strikers and the young trade union activists I meet are very politically engaged—a huge argument for votes at 16—and they can certainly teach many of us a thing or two about media literacy. Some of them were teaching me the other day about TikTok.
Media ownership reform comes up a number of times in the report, but, so far as I could find, it is not mentioned in the government response. The Media Reform Coalition in 2014 described this as the “elephant in the room”, and the Cairncross report engages with it in a number of places. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, referred to the local media concentration, but in national media we have three companies controlling at least 70% of the national print market, with Rupert Murdoch’s News UK holding a third of the entire market share. These are deeply concerning issues for our democracy and will continue to be so. A quarter of local government areas are not served by a local newspaper, while 35% are covered by a single local news outlet. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, referred to the Yorkshire Evening Post and its recent achievement; I would refer also to its sister paper, the Yorkshire Post, which did enormous work in uncovering the great scandal of the felling of street trees in Sheffield. Without that, we might have lost even more trees and might still be in a disastrous situation. Media is crucial to our democracy, as is local media.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, for securing it and declare my interests as set out in the register. I agree with much of what has been said but want to touch on unpaid internships and diversity in respect of the Cairncross Review.
Paragraphs 57 and 58 of the Government’s response to Cairncross identify the difficulties associated with unpaid internships. Paragraph 58 also refers to the Government being
“committed to ensuring that everyone is free to reach their full potential, regardless of their background.”
In that spirit, will my noble friend accept the difficulties that unpaid internships present to those who seek to enter journalism and the media, and will she from the Dispatch Box support my Private Member’s Bill, which had its First Reading on 13 January, to prohibit all unpaid work experience exceeding four weeks? That would have an incredible impact on journalism and the media, and across our economy and society. In this respect, I also salute the work done by the FT with PressPad in helping young people who aspire to be journalists in the capital. Unpaid internships could also act as a huge barrier to diversity in news media, where currently 94% of journalists identify as white, while only 8% identify as disabled. What are the Government planning to do to help the news media snap out of being so massively monochrome and having largely non-disabled newsrooms right up and down the country?
We have touched upon media literacy. What are the Government doing to have media literacy threaded through all aspects of the curriculum at school and in wider society? When will my noble friend announce the 19 recipients of the first grant from the Nesta pilot fund? Similarly, turning to the United States and its use of the 501(c)(3) status, can the UK media learn anything from this status about its potential benefit for news publications?
Here is the news: we have fake news and fading news, and circulation and ad revenue are through the floor for traditional media forms. When it comes to online, if we want to ensure at least some level of veracity, we all need, at least, to commit to making that extra click.
My Lords, as we have heard, a fully functioning local media is a valuable community resource. It is often a lifeline for many, keeping people informed on local matters and informing communities on how local, regional and national issues may affect their lives—even if it is a stolen pint of milk. With the rapid rise in social media, many people are beginning to rely solely on social media outlets as their main source of information. The noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, focused on innovation. She is correct, but I do not see it as an either/or.
As Tom Watson outlined in a debate on this subject in the other place:
“We have lost 6,000 frontline reporter jobs since 2007; newspaper circulation rates have fallen by half; 350 local news titles have closed; and half of Britons are now worried about fake news.”—[Official Report, Commons, 12/2/19; col. 776.]
We need to ensure that local journalism is kept alive and, where possible, that local and regional media outlets have a sustainable future. We on these Benches therefore welcome the recommendations made in the Cairncross Review: to establish an institute for public interest news as well as direct funding for local public interest news. I will not repeat them but, to impress this on the Minister, I echo the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, on this issue.
Another part of the Government’s response to the Cairncross Review was a plan of
“continuing to ensure a free and independent press in the UK and internationally”.
Is the Government’s recent decision to exclude certain journalists from No. 10 briefings really in this spirit, especially as that decision has been seen as undermining press freedoms? We need to ensure that local journalism is, where possible, protected and promoted. As I outlined beforehand, local media outlets are a vital community resource and I hope the Government will always have this issue at the forefront of their thinking as they follow through on the recommendations made in the Cairncross Review.
Before I sit down, I notice that the Minister is about to give her maiden speech to your Lordships’ House. Like all other noble Lords, I welcome her to this House and look forward to her contributions and interventions. I just hope that she has fewer hashtag-gate moments than she had in the other place—be that #handbaggate or #leathertrousersgate. I was tempted to wear my leather trousers to the debate today, but I was even more worried about the ire of our fantastic doorkeepers than what may come from the noble Baroness. I welcome her to this House.
My Lords, I thank your Lordships for this afternoon’s debate. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, on bringing this important issue before the House. Given how popular it has been and the expertise on all sides, I am sorry in many ways that this has been a short debate, but I am sure that we will return to these issues over the forthcoming months. I want to thank all those who have spoken. I have to fulfil the requirements of delivering my maiden speech as well as trying to do justice to some of the contributions made this afternoon. I will not get the image of the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, and his leather trousers out of my mind for some time.
First, I begin by formally thanking all noble Lords for their warm welcome since my introduction, particularly Black Rod and her staff, the doorkeepers and all the other staff, including the security and police officers who have, quite literally, pointed me in the right direction when it was clear that I had become rather lost in this red-carpeted end of the Palace. I would also like to thank my noble friends Lady Evans of Bowes Park, the Chief Whip, Lord O’Shaughnessy, Lady Chisholm of Owlpen and Lady Jenkin of Kennington, and my DCMS colleague and noble friend Lady Barran among many others for their advice and support in recent weeks. I must also thank my sponsors: my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, who—in spite of the provocations from some of my former colleagues—was a fabulously calm and unflappable Chief Whip when I was a very junior Whip in the other place, and my noble friend Lady Verma, who has been a great ally in my adopted home of Leicester and Leicestershire and was a very talented Minister.
The last few years in UK politics have been both challenging and fascinating for reasons which are well rehearsed. I loved being a constituency Member of Parliament, but there came a time last year when my satisfaction from being in that role and my pride in being an MP and a Minister were outweighed by my dismay at the continuing parliamentary impasse and the constant online abuse and threats, and I concluded that a fresh start was needed for me, my family and my constituency. I had not envisaged that this fresh start might actually involve becoming a Member of this House quite so quickly, but it is an enormous privilege to be here. As my noble friend Lord Black mentioned, I shortly expect to succeed in my attempt to leave the Government and join colleagues on the Back Benches, where I hope I will have the chance to speak more freely about interests I have in character education, financial services—having served two years as chair of the Treasury Select Committee in the other place—the online harms agenda, digital and tech, and women and equalities issues, as well as having a greater presence in the Morgan home, which my family say that they want. I am not sure that I will necessarily leave behind a note, but I can assure my noble friend Lord Black that I shall certainly leave behind some handover instructions.
I turn to the subject of this debate. The Cairncross Review vividly outlined the threat to high-quality journalism in this country. As we have heard, there are now around 6,000 fewer journalists than there were roughly a decade ago. Print circulation of daily national papers fell from 11.5 million in 2008 to 5.8 million in 2018 and, in this same period, the circulation for local newspapers has also halved. 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 faced significant challenges in creating sustainable online business models. This combination of market conditions threatens to undermine the future financial sustainability of journalism and should concern us all, as we have heard on all sides of this Chamber today. There has been universal agreement on the importance of local journalism in particular, but also high-quality public interest journalism from everyone.
What Dame Frances termed public interest journalism —investigative and democracy reporting—holds 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—so its sustainability is very important to all of us, including the Government. Since the publication of the review, the Government have engaged widely on its findings and recommendations. Discussions have been held with representatives of the news industry, including: the News Media Association, the Society of Editors and the National Union of Journalists; a number of online platforms, including Google, Facebook and Twitter; the BBC; and the regulators, including the CMA, Ofcom, IPSO, the Charity Commission and many more. Last week, the Government published our initial response.
As has already been referred to, the Government support the majority of Dame Frances’s recommendations. In fact, we supported all the recommendations apart from one: the proposal to establish an institute for public interest news. Some noble Lords referred to this as the Government having rejected that recommendation—as ever, there is always something in the drafting—but I think the better way to look at it is that the Government have decided that it is not for the Government to take that recommendation forward. There may well be a very good argument for an institute for public interest news but, as ever with the media side of my brief, there is a decision to be taken about exactly what the Government’s role is in that. It may well be that there is another body or another way to take forward that particular recommendation.
The Government have already started to take forward some of the other interventions proposed in the review. We have worked with Nesta to deliver a £2 million pilot innovation fund, which launched in October. It seeks to invest in new technological prototypes, start-ups and innovative business models to explore new ways of sustaining the industry in this changing landscape. Last week, the Government also formally committed to extend the business rate discount for local newspapers until 2025, as part of their efforts to support local and regional journalism. The Chancellor will consider the case for a range of potential tax incentives to support the news publishing industry this year, including policy options on VAT, notwithstanding recent litigation in this area. I note those, including the noble Baroness opposite, who have appealed for VAT relief to be extended to all digital publications. Winning arguments about extending reliefs is challenging with the Treasury at the best of times, but I am sure that this will be an ongoing debate. In answer to my noble friend Lord Black, there will of course be a Budget in March and any changes in relation to tax would be made at such a fiscal event.
The Government are committed to taking forward work on the recommendation to create codes of conduct to rebalance and redefine the relationships between news publishers and online platforms, in alignment with wider work on digital regulation. We think that this will help to ensure that journalists in the UK are fairly treated and rewarded for their content. The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, mentioned this in her opening remarks. We are working on the best way to take forward and enforce those codes and we will obviously keep the House updated. She and other noble Lords also mentioned the fact that there are a number of different reviews and publications in this space. As she set out, there are complex issues in this whole area, which need to be addressed in a systemic way. My noble friend Lord Black said that there were too many initiatives; he thought that we should identify some strategic issues. I do not disagree with that, but we have to think about how we do it. There are issues such as online advertising where it is right for the Competition and Markets Authority—which will publish its final report in July this year—to take that forward. I assure the House that, where it recommends action, the Government will act.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, and I have already discussed the online harms work, on which we hope very much to make further announcements very shortly. Other noble Lords mentioned the media literacy work that is needed; it will be part of the online harms response. I entirely accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, said about media literacy being needed for all ages; I often find that it is younger people who are perhaps looking at the news with a more sceptical eye than some of us, who might need to be reminded about sources of news and the different motivations of those writing articles. There will be further announcements on that in the work on online harms.
My noble friend Lord Attlee asked about Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013. He will know, I am sure, that we included in the Conservative Party manifesto a commitment to repeal Section 40, and we are looking for a suitable legislative vehicle to do that. He also asked about the Foreign Office and foreign travel advice. I assure him that any risks or appalling incidents, murders or attacks affecting journalists are part of the way in which the Foreign Office makes decisions about travel advice to those who are travelling overseas.
My noble friend Lord Holmes talked about internships and diversity, both of which are important issues. They are perhaps not necessarily for this particular review, but he is right to say that thinking about how we get young future talent from diverse backgrounds and perspectives into our local, and indeed national, media goes to the heart of the sustainability of that journalism. The Government will certainly take away those points.
The Cairncross Review also outlined how news publishers are increasingly reliant on the online advertising market, and the threat this poses to the future sustainability of journalism. We have committed to reviewing how online advertising is regulated. The Government will be commissioning work, and there will also be work by the Competition and Markets Authority. We published a call for evidence last week, seeking views on the challenges, as well as the benefits, that the rise of online advertising has brought for people and businesses, including news publishers.
There is a great deal of common ground between the recommendations made by Dame Frances and this Government’s wider programme of work to address the challenges raised by digital products and services. As we have heard, this includes the findings of the Furman report on digital competition and the forthcoming legislation to follow up the online harms White Paper. The Government will take account of all the work—I agree with the point made that we need a co-ordinated and coherent approach, but we also need to make progress.
There are many substantial recommendations in the review and, as a Government, we are committed to taking this work forward. I think we all agree that only high-quality journalism can hold the powerful to account and shine a light on society’s important issues. We are committed to getting this work right, so that future generations can be inspired and engaged by a free and vibrant press. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this important debate and I have no doubt that this House will return to these issues in the near future.