What's happening with the Cairncross Review?

THE CAIRNCROSS Review into the sustainability of high quality journalism was on the agenda at October's LFB meeting. See our report on another recent event on Cairncross hosted by the Media Reform Coalition - and for the NUJ's submission to the Review see here.

Gareth Lowe and Josef Davies-Coates; Photo: Pierre Alozie

Gareth Lowe (left) and Josef Davies-Coates (centre) with LFB Branch Secretary Phil Sutcliffe (right). The LFB banner (draped over the table) now features in Branch meetings.

Our speakers - at short notice - were former campaign coordinator of the Media Reform Coalition Josef Davies-Coates and Gareth Lowe, Chair of Unite's National Publishing & Media Branch. They were both active in the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom (CPBF) - which has sadly wound up - see here - and are co-founders of Better Media.

While "Cairncross" looks at all UK media, it has a focus on the printed press and in particular on the local press, with its "core social importance". The Review also includes the role of "search engines", the effect of social media and digital advertising (that would be Google and Facebook). The NUJ welcomed the Review when it was announced, though we criticised the lack of working journalists on the panel - though the CEO of Johnston Press, for example, is on it.

Of high quality journalism, asked Gareth, "What does that mean to us" anyway? "Probably something different to some people on the panel" of the Review. Gareth feels that sustainable high-quality journalism should produce "journalistic work that is in the public interest... journalism should be ethical" and should "subscribe to an ethical code" - and the advertising alongside it should too. It was noted that the distinctions between advertising and editorial are becoming "blurred," with the obvious labelling of "branded content" starting to be replaced by "native advertising" that is practically indistinguishable from editorial.

What's happening with the Cairncross Review, then? Submissions to it have now closed: "no one knows what's going to happen next." It isn't clear whether there will be any opportunity to comment on its findings or influence its outcome or implementation. Josef noted especially how "brazenly" the Government rushed through implementation of selective recommendations of the Leveson Inquiry with little opportunity for input.

There is widespread anxiety that the outcome of Cairncross will be some kind of subsidy for local media, but that "they just divert subsidy cash into propping up the failed business model of the press barons." The National Media Association represents "the big national media organisations... three companies represent 83 per cent of all national newspapers and there's a very similar picture locally". It seemed to favour such an outcome in the run-up to the Review.

Now "pretty much everyone" feels "it shouldn't be about propping up the status quo. There should be some sort of criterion" around "public interest". Josef said that Frances Cairncross, the Review Chair, appears to have said something of the sort.

Gareth notes that "this is all happening very quickly". Josef expects we'll have some sort of opportunity to respond when the Review reports back in around December.

One of the biggest problems in today's media, notes Josef, is funding. Most of print journalism is in the hands of "very few people,". Local news is struggling and there are closures. Meanwhile, "digital tech giants" have the "ability to reuse content without its creators getting any kick-back". Gareth fears that the "likely outcome" of Cairncross is a "levy on the tech giants to subsidise the press" - the very people whose negligence has brought the newspapers to the woeful state they're currently in. (The EU Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Marked would, if passed give publishers the right to charge the internet giants licensing fees.)

We've seen a similar phenomenon recently with the Local Democracy Reporting Service - in which part of the BBC licence fee has gone to support the local press, only for it to end up predominantly in the hands of a few big news groups.

There's also the danger, as noted by Martin Moore in Tech Giants and Civic Power, that taking a levy from Google, Facebook and the like to fund print media "might actually entrench the system" that they control.

Recently, some new business models suggest that "subscription is the way forward" in funding local media. Josef cites the Bristol Cable: about half of its income is from grants and the rest comes from 2000 regular subscriptions from members, starting at £1 a week. There have also been successful recent "community shares issues" at the New Internationalist and the Community Channel.

Better Media, still in the process of being set up, is calling for controls on media ownership, with ownership thresholds and public interest tests like those broadcasters currently operate under. As Gareth put it, "greater diversity of opinion will not happen without diversity of ownership." There should be public service broadcasting that remains a healthy part of that media ownership.

There needs to be, believes Josef, a readily identifiable "Greenpeace for the media" that everyone will go to. Acknowledging that there are many "single issue groups" out there with a role in media reform - Stop Funding Hate, Hacked Off, 38 Degrees, Avaaz - Better Media is launching itself as a democratic, worker-led (with unions) campaign "to change the media landscape," funded by members and organisations.

  • This article was amended on 24/10/18 to add a sentence linking to our subsequent report on the Media Reform Coalition's meeting on Cairncross.