Analysis: Government's press sustainability review

07 Feb 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Analysis: Government's press sustainability review

A review into the future sustainability of newspapers and quality journalism is to be welcomed, writes Raymond Snoddy - but don't underestimate its chances of turning into a hollow farce

It would be churlish in the extreme to do anything other than welcome Theresa May’s independent review into the state of the newspaper industry and how in particular professional journalism can be sustained into the future.

For a moment at least it is right to set aside all cynicism and welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has taken a moment or two off from the quagmire of Brexit and blood battles of the Conservative party to call journalism “a huge force for good.”

Such words do not always form in the mouths of politicians.

It is equally good to hear the Prime Minister say that “good quality journalism provides us with the information and analysis we need to inform our viewpoints and conduct a genuine discussion.”

And even better to go beyond piety and into harsh reality by adding that “in recent years, especially in local journalism, we have seen falling circulations, a hollowing out of local newsrooms and fear for the future sustainability of high-quality journalism.”

The diagnosis of the problem is all too accurate. In the past decade 200 newspapers, mainly local, have closed and an estimated two thirds of local authority areas no longer have a local daily newspaper covering their affairs.

Deloitte estimates articulate the long-term problem at the heart of financing both newspapers and journalism - that the current average annual revenues per digital media user is only around £15 compared to £124 for each print media user. As the dogs in the street know, for all the wondrous international reach of online, it is the print circulations that are under downward sustained pressure.

It is good that the terms of reference of the review will centrally include looking at both the role of online platforms and the digital advertising supply chain. It will also look at whether advertising revenues are being unfairly diverted away from content producers and if the digital advertising market has encouraged the growth of click-bait.

Crucially, the review is expected to make recommendations on what industry and government action might be taken to ensure a financially sustainable future for high quality journalism.

It is late, very late, to announce such a review - the outline of such problems, particularly facing the local press, were taking shape a decade ago.

But in a continuing spirit of goodwill let’s say better late than never before the problem has become terminal rather than merely extremely serious.

Part of the problem lay with May’s unfortunate predecessor David Cameron.

Instead of looking into the looming financial crisis that was already starting to envelop the newspaper industry Cameron, with a similar level of thought and detailed analysis that went into the calling the EU referendum, opted for Leveson.

Instead of tackling the growing monopoly powers of the US tech giants here in the UK we had an overblown and largely unnecessary inquisition into the misdeeds of journalism.

The illegality of phone hacking could so easily have been dealt with by turning the full force of the law on the phone hackers and the newspaper executives who supported them by omission or commission.

Instead we had the enormous distraction and cost of Leveson with its ultimately flawed recommendations that fully implemented would undermine the very freedom of the press that the Prime Minister is seeking to support.

Lord Justice Leveson devoted barely a page of his gigantic report to the impact of the internet on the finances of newspapers, because that was not in his remit.

As many have observed at the same time there was felt to be no need for an urgent judge-led inquiry into the behaviour and morals of bankers who nearly brought the entire world economy to its knees.

But that was then - time to welcome the current review.

Except that it would be a mistake to become over-optimistic.

Leaving Leveson out of the equation there have been reviews - or Royal Commissions as we used to call them - on average about once a decade since 1947.

The main themes have ranged from the over-weaning power of the press lords through invasion of privacy, and yes, the economic sustainability of newspaper in a democratic society.

They all had one thing in common - they were printed, published and then promptly forgotten in the main, other than sometimes changing the name, approach and personnel at the regulatory body of the day.

There is another problem of timing that does not bode well for more action this time.

There are two different versions on when the review will report - later this year or early next.

With neither the chairman nor the expert members yet chosen, and a serious amount of work to be done to come up with any meaningful conclusions, you can be sure that early next year will turn out to be optimistic.

How much attention then will any recommendations get in the eye of the Brexit storm, the approach to a general election campaign and the final battle to the death for the leadership of the Conservative party?

How will any recommendations, and indeed freedom of the press itself fare, in the face of a possible Corbyn government and the tender mercies of the likes of Tom Watson.

All the good will in the world for the new press review would not compensate for the arrival of a Leveson 2, the implementation of Section 40 on privacy and libel and the extension of the you-win-but-you-still-pay-all-the-costs principle to data.

The Prime Minister has indicated opposition to all three, which would impose additional burdens on the newspaper industry, particularly local papers in the case of the Section 40 manoeuvres.

A review into the future sustainability of newspapers and quality journalism would be a hollow, almost farcical thing indeed, if Theresa May either doesn’t block such measures, or was prevented from doing so. And that’s apart from the small matter of the far from failed attempts to force the newspaper industry to accept a state-sanctioned regulator.

What we can say is that Theresa May’s independent review into the sustainability of the press and high quality journalism is absolutely fine so far.

As for the rest, we will see, beginning with who is appointed to chair it.


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