The Culture Secretary, Matt Hancock, has set up a panel chaired by Frances Cairncross to look into the sustainability of what he calls ‘high-quality journalism’ in the UK. This is little more than a device to help him justify giving fresh public subsidies to his friends and supporters in the corporate press.
The terms of reference of the review are pretty clear. There are various tasks it should perform as it goes along, most of which involve scrutiny of Google and Facebook, but it has one real objective: to ‘make recommendations for industry and/or government action to ensure a future for high-quality journalism’.
Hancock plainly expects it to propose ways of milking tech giants for money. Now it’s possible that that it will simply suggest a better online advertising deal for news providers, but it is hard to see why we need a year-long review for that. Everyone already knows such a deal is desirable and if there is anything Hancock or the industry can do to make it happen they should surely be doing it now rather than sitting on their hands for a year.
Far more likely is that he wants the review to propose some kind of tax and to help him sell the idea to the public and in Parliament by providing a winning rationale in the form of dire warnings about the plight of ‘high-quality journalism’.
So let’s be clear: any money raised as tax is public money – our money – and the idea that this might find its way into the pockets of Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere, the Barclay brothers or the people who run the Mirror and Express is unacceptable. Of the many reasons why it is unacceptable, here are three.
• We would be subsidising mainly low-quality or bad journalism, since these organisations obviously do not consistently produce ‘high-quality journalism’ and refuse to accept regulation capable of upholding high standards.
• It would be good money after bad, since we already subsidise their businesses very generously (notably but not exclusively through VAT zero-rating) and the returns for the public in terms of journalistic standards and innovation are so meagre.
• It is wholly inappropriate, and indeed it is corrupt, for a one-party minority government even to consider unilaterally offering public cash to organisations whose job is to hold it to account.
For further evidence that the ultimate purpose of the Cairncross Review is to justify subsidies, look at the circumstances of its creation and its make-up.
As Julian Petley has pointed out, the very first statement on the subject issued by Hancock’s department included a comment of welcome from the News Media Association (NMA) the umbrella organisation of the corporate newspaper press – an open acknowledgement that the review was established with the collusion of the Mail, the Sun and the Mirror.
Then there is its composition: the members might have been hand-picked by the NMA, indeed it is perfectly possible that they were. Included, brazenly, was Peter Wright, the personal gofer of Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre in all press policy matters. Also there is Ashley Highfield, CEO of regional newspaper company Johnston Press and the man who recently persuaded the government to allow BBC licence fee money to support his company.
No less striking is the inclusion of Matt Rogerson of the Guardian. Just weeks after that paper backed Hancock’s cancellation of part two of the Leveson Inquiry – thus betraying the victims of press abuses that had been exposed by its own reporters – it had a reward: a place at the subsidy trough.
The full list, discussed here, is as depressing as it is revealing, and the absences make it worse. Conspicuously there is no room on the panel for a representative of the country’s biggest organisation of actual journalists, the National Union of Journalists.
Nor is there a single specialist academic, even though the country has dozens of university journalism departments in which independent people have been researching exactly these problems for years. Nor is there a figure representing the victims of press abuse, or anyone else who might help the panel distinguish ‘high-quality journalism’ from the works of the leading NMA organs.
This last point is central, for although the review can be made to sound plausible – no one disputes, after all, that there is a crisis in the funding of decent journalism – it loses all credibility at the point where Hancock asks us to be concerned about the future of the Daily Mail, the Sun, the Mirror and the Express.
Real journalists check facts. They try honestly to reflect the realities of the world to their readers. They endeavour to be fair to the people they write about. They seek justice and try to prevent injustice. They report without fear or favour.
Not one of these applies with any consistency to the work of these organisations.
Tellingly, British people don’t trust national newspaper journalists to tell the truth. In survey after survey, year after year, around 80 per cent of the public say this, and none of the industry’s traditional excuses hold any water. It hasn’t always been that way, nor is it just part of a general decline in trust, and in other countries the trust picture is nowhere near as bad. This is a serious British problem.
Many of these newspapers, moreover, are divisive, dishonest and cruel in their coverage of minorities – and that is never a badge of ‘high-quality journalism’. Moreover the regulator they created for themselves, IPSO, does nothing to stop them: of 8,148 complaints of discrimination it received in a year, it upheld just one.
They operate as a cartel, rarely reporting on each others’ business and never investigating each others’ activities, so that the public is hardly ever offered insight into their wrongdoings and failures. At the same time they use every ounce of their influence to prevent external scrutiny (such as Leveson 2) or accountability (such as reforms to give ordinary people access to justice in libel).
This is not high-quality journalism. It is thuggery and corruption passing itself off as journalism and demanding the freedoms and privileges that go with it. And Matt Hancock wants to subsidise it.
Having eagerly done the bidding of the press bosses in cancelling Leveson part 2, the Culture Secretary now likes to suggest that the Cairncross review is forward-looking where Leveson 2 would be backward-looking. But if we give public money to corporations that have long records of contempt for fair and accurate journalism, what kind of future are we investing in?