A response that matters
The annual campaign to celebrate quality trusted journalism is taking place this week. Ray Snoddy looks at the issues, the threats and what should be done to protect the future of the press
Each year, when the annual Journalism Matters campaign comes around, there are no shortage of politicians willing to write in blood of their lifelong devotion to a free press.
Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, is a firm believer that a free and fearless press is essential to hold those in power to account, despite there being, “a healthy tension” between journalists and politicians.
John Whittingdale, minister of state for media and data, is equally enthusiastic about newspapers holding the powerful to account as well as being trusted sources of reliable information, particularly in times of crisis.
Maybe Sturgeon’s belief in a free press is the more plausible of the two because she presents herself every day at a press conference and takes questions from Scottish journalists about her handing of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By comparison, the Government of which Whittingdale is a member and who was once in Cabinet, allows itself to be held accountable in a more occasional and fitful manner.
No minister it seems is ever available to be held to account on Channel 4 News, presumably because of the danger that they might face difficult questions.
For a long time ministers boycotted the BBC’s Today programme until they judged it was no longer in their interest to do so.
Even more bizarrely, the Government is now starting to hint again about a privatisation of Channel 4, something that Whittingdale tried and failed to do when he was Culture Secretary. A sale of Channel 4, if such a thing were even possible, could easily silence, or at best neuter, Channel 4 News.
Basically, it is a lot easier to talk about the wonders of a free press than actually doing something to protect it, particularly anything to strengthen its finances or respect it on a daily basis.
Different aspects of the Journalism Matters campaign lead inevitably to the paradox facing newspapers today, particularly the local and regional press.
There is the major new study, World Without News, which demonstrates that the nation’s appreciation and value of journalism has increased since the pandemic.
In the midst of fake news and disinformation, two-thirds of the Britons surveyed say they value journalism more now a result of the crisis.
Tellingly, the proportion who are positive about journalism rises to 77% among the under 35s who are increasingly going to trusted news brands to check what they read on social media.
Overall ,70% agreed that: “ a world without journalism would harm democratic society.”
Apart from covering important topics and issues that might be overlooked, news consumption also helps to connect with others, understand the world around us and help others to thrive.
(You can find out more about this research during an upcoming Newsworks webinar, hosted by Mediatel News - register for free here.)
That is the good news. However, another survey of local and regional editors tells a very different story.
Local editors want the government to intervene in the UK digital market place to curb the activities of Google and Facebook “which could wipe out local journalism if left unchecked.”
No less than 89% of the editors surveyed believe the practices of Facebook and Google pose an existential threat to local journalism.
The same percentage say that the UK Government should act to make the tech giants pay for the local journalism on their platforms, along the lines of the proposal by the Australian government.
The numbers are stark. Google and Facebook took around 80% of the £14 billion spent on digital advertising in the UK last year, while national and local newspapers, which produce most of the content that drives traffic to the sites, got a mere 4%.
Against such a background, talk about the importance of a free press is both glib and cheap.
The unprecedented scale of the competition from the tech companies and the enormity of both their impact on the finances of established news brands and, more fundamentally on society itself, requires an equally unprecedented response.
It has to be coordinated and involve not just money – though that is important - but also making sure that the multi-billionaire founders of social media companies are increasingly required to take greater responsibility for the content on their sites.
The decision by Facebook to delete a posting by President Trump that COVID-19 was “less lethal” than the flu is welcome. Twitter hid the Trump claim and warned against false and misleading information. But there is still a long way to go.
Of course established publishers must be fairly compensated for the intellectual property they expensively create, by law if necessary, but that should be only a first step.
A way must be found, at international level if that is the only way, to ensure that the tech giants pay a fair level of taxation and contribute more to the societies where they make their fortunes.
In a recent year, Facebook paid £28 million in corporation tax in the UK while enjoying record revenues of £1.6 billion.
A U.S government led by President Biden, if the current polls are to be believed, must also launch an anti-trust investigation into the size and reach of the tech companies, which continue to expand endlessly through acquisition.
There are other ways of tackling fake and harmful news carried by the social media without going to legislation and that is to push for greater co-operation between publishers, advertisers and advertising agencies to support best practice and end toleration of hateful and harmful content.
James Mitchinson, editor of the Yorkshire Post, which recently won the top regional daily award, has been arguing for the creation of a publisher’s code of practice, which would be aligned with a conscientious advertiser’s network.
In an interview in InPublishing magazine, Mitchinson attacks publishers who put out “unconscionable content” in return for programmatic rewards and appeals to advertisers and agencies to take greater responsibility for the context in which their ads appear.
Whatever the mechanisms chosen, it really is time for politicians to pay more than lip service to freedom of the press and holding the powerful to account and to do it in their actions and policies and above all, for more than one week a year during the Journalism Matters campaign.