UNITED KINGDOM: government plans to assess media sustainability welcomed by some, criticised by others

(CIVICUS Monitor) In early February 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May called for a much-needed review of media sustainability in the UK. As reported in the previous Monitor update, the concentration of media ownership and the lack of local news outlets have caused concern over access to information in the country. Not only do these trends endanger media independence, but they also hinder citizens from being sufficiently informed to hold local authorities accountable and be civically active. As the Prime Minister declared:

Good quality journalism provides us with the information and analysis we need to inform our viewpoints and conduct a genuine discussion. It is a huge force for good. But in recent years, especially in local journalism, we’ve seen falling circulations, a hollowing-out of local newsrooms and fears for the future sustainability of high-quality journalism“.

A crucial issue for media sustainability is the lack of funds available for independent journalism, as well as the competition smaller outlets face with major national-level outlets and the growing number of online news platforms.

There appears to be no immediate change to remedy the situation. A few days after the government decided to conduct a review of the sustainability of local and regional press, Richard Desmond, owner of Express and Star Face, took over the company Trinity Mirror. The takeover puts 430 journalistsemployment status at risk. The National Union of Journalists urged the company to mediate the job losses in the takeover, expressing concern that:

“…Trinity Mirror, with its long record of making cuts to its newspapers, will not be the knight on the white horse they were hoping for […] As the government starts an inquiry into the sustainability of the press, this takeover will have a dramatic effect on the national newspaper landscape and therefore the deal must not result the closure of titles, loss of independence of titles or choice for readers“.

Secretary General Michelle Stanistreet of the National Union of Journalists noted the worrisome situation for local media, stating that:

“The media industry is in crisis today, more than 300 local newspapers have been closed in the past decade and more than half of all parliamentary constituencies do not have a dedicated daily local newspaper. We have consistently highlighted the severity of this situation – our local communities deserve better. Hollowed-out shells of titles are no substitute for properly-resourced titles, with real investment in the provision of news and information that communities are crying out for.”

Two of Britain’s most widely-read tabloid newspapers, Daily Mail and The Sun, also support the government’s decision. The Sun, in particular, commented that:

For years the web giants have sucked the lifeblood from Britain’s news organisations. It has to stop. We’re all for free markets and competition. But it’s not a fair fight. Google and Facebook seize content, expensively produced by everyone from the Sun down to the smallest local paper, post it and take the advertising revenue. Meanwhile, they spew out clickbait and fake news…”

The announcement, though, also sparked some reservations. The Daily Telegraph wrote that “the danger with any state inquiry into the press is that it risks becoming a way of controlling or influencing it”. Roy Greenslade in the Guardian, stated that “I hope the PM is sincere in her desire to save journalism for the public good. But so much depends on the scope of the review”.

The reservations and concerns may stem from the previous government’s review led by Brian Leveson between 2011 and 2012. That report highlighted several concerns over the respect for ethical principles and privacy by major national newspapers. Lord Leveson had proposed a new independent body to oversee the work of reporters and sanction breach of the law. However, many found that the mechanism was a way to control the press, rather than to ensure its integrity. Former Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to drop the proposal, but the spectrum of a second review by Leveson remained. At the beginning of January, a vote in the House of  Lords to launch a second inquiry was heavily criticised by Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Matt Hancock. The Guardian believes that a “new” review may be used to divert attention from and postpone a second Leveson enquiry.

Some are also afraid that the new review will give more visibility and leverage to the main news agencies. These concerns stem from the fact that the Prime Minister has some connections with Britain’s conservative-leaning mainstream media. In regard to this potential conflict of interest and party affiliation, professor of communications at the University of Westminister, Steven Barnett, asked:

Will it be a serious examination of creative policy solutions to a fundamental problem which threatens an informed and vibrant democracy? Or will it be little more than a sop to those powerful press barons who – at least in the eyes of her own party – have helped to sustain the Conservative party in power?

The government will examine policies to improve the media’s ability to adapt to digital competition, including social media networks. The report is expected to be completed in early 2019.

Originally published on CIVICUS Monitor

Featured image by Anthony Devlin/PA