There are two ways of looking at the new Press Review announced by Theresa May, the UK prime minister: a genuine attempt to inject some badly needed funds into the failing business model of journalism, or another backhander to the mainstream corporate press to keep them sweet. Depressingly, history suggests the latter.
The prime minister was effusive about the importance of journalism as a “huge force for good” – and anyone who has seen Spielberg’s The Post could scarcely disagree. That film encapsulated everything noble about great reporting and the vital importance of a free and independent press to a healthy democracy.
May chose to highlight the crisis in local journalism – where the journalism may be less dramatic than that portrayed by Tom Hanks et al, but is just as vital: the leaders of local institutions such as hospitals, police forces, local courts or local councils can be equally susceptible to corruption or incompetence and also require the kind of scrutiny which keeps them accountable to local people. At a more mundane level, communities need reliable information about transport, planning, policing, education and local businesses simply to participate as informed citizens in their local area.
May is right that the problem of sustaining local media is particularly acute. Classified advertising – the mainstay of local journalism – has all but disappeared from print newspapers, while the big tech companies – particularly Facebook and Google – are hoovering uplocal as well as national advertising revenues. The major regional publishing groups – Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Newsquest and Tindle, which between them own nearly 75% of regional titles – are obliged to choose between protecting their profit margins, consolidating their papers, or closing them completely.
As a comprehensive study by Kings College London demonstrated in 2016, consolidation usually produces powerful monopolies in which “local” reporting is hollowed out and outsourced to distant regional hubs.
What to do? Many countries are examining policy interventions to address the problem: from direct public subsidies, to levies on aggregators and other tech giants for redistribution to new or established journalistic enterprises. In 2012, the House of Lords Communications Committee recommended reform of charity law to allow greater discretion for recognising some journalism as a charitable activity, in the same way as education. This is a common route for non-profit journalism enterprises in the US to raise money – something that has so far been largely ignored in the UK.
Then there is the BBC’s new Local Democracy Reporter scheme, under which the BBC has agreed to fund 150 local reporters as part of a new partnership with publishers, costing licence payers around £8m A year. While in principle an apparently productive use of public money to alleviate the democratic deficit, this scheme is a good illustration of why we should look very carefully at May’s motives.
In practice, the vast majority of those reporter contracts have been swallowed up by those very publishers that have been consolidating operations and closing papers while protecting their profit base – as noted by industry bible the Press Gazette, 130 of the 144 assigned reporters went to Trinity Mirror, Newsquest or Johnston Press.
The editor of one small publisher, the Salford Star, reacted by calling the scheme “a total sham” which benefited only those news groups that “have been sacking journalists for years in the relentless pursuit of more profit”.
This illustrates the risk of taking May’s review at face value. There are literally hundreds of small, hyperlocal publishers operating around the UK with the potential to make a fundamental contribution to redressing the local democratic deficit. My own research, with Cardiff and Birmingham City universities, has demonstrated that many of these small operations have successfully initiated local campaigns or investigations entirely in keeping with the kind of watchdog journalism which is in retreat.
These are precisely the kinds of small, entrepreneurial, dynamic enterprises – often making creative use of social and online media as well as traditional hard copy distribution – that would benefit hugely from a small injection of cash.
‘Big beasts’ dominate
Unfortunately, the big beasts of the News Media Association – the alliance of major publishers which includes Murdoch’s News UK, the Mail and Mirror groups as well as the biggest regional groups – have consistently lobbied against any measures that might divert resources away from their own bank accounts. As a succession of senior ministers and former prime ministers testified to the Leveson Inquiry, Britain’s corporate press still wields frightening power over UK governments that is out of all proportion to their steadily dwindling circulations.
There must therefore be a very large question mark over where May’s review will be allowed to go, and what it might recommend. 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?
Given the ferocious propaganda battle that those same press barons have fought in the post-Leveson era against any measures that might make them more accountable – and given that every one of her five prime ministerial predecessors at some point surrendered to their concerted and self-interested lobbying – we should not be surprised if the main beneficiaries of this review will yet again be the likes of Rupert Murdoch and the other big beast of Fleet Street.