The focus of any package of measures to ensure the longevity of an independent and thriving media must ensure that a plurality of voices continue to be heard, the Society of Editors has said.
Responding to the Cairncross Review’s call for evidence on the sustainability of high-quality journalism in the UK, the Society also said that further discussion was needed as to whether any funding for an independent media came from the public purse or the direction of levies set against social media giants.
The Society said: “The Society and its members are well aware that changes will and are taking place in the manner in which news and information is delivered. It is not the Society’s role to attempt to hold back the tide of technological change nor defend the right of single publications or news outlets, or indeed whole platforms, to simply exist.
“However, the Society has voiced its concerns in recent years that the severe financial challenges facing existing mainstream news organisations, particularly in the regional press, does put at risk the ability for society to police itself, and also police those who police it. In particular we have seen the effect of budget restraints on the coverage of local democracy and the judicial system where many local authority meetings and court hearings frequently go unreported.”
While initiatives such as the BBCs local democracy service had gone some way to address these issues by funding a number of local democracy journalists to cover councils, the Society said, the initiative is limited and seeks to address the symptoms and not the causes of the problems besetting the regional newspaper industry.
“At the heart of both of these endeavours – Local Democracy and Courts in Crisis – there remains the issue of how much of any funding for an independent media can be provided through the public purse or through levies set against such organisations as the social media and digital giant companies? Such funding may well bring with it scrutiny that will undermine the very independence of the press we are seeking always to preserve.
“Certainly, it is felt that a more constructive and long-term solution to funding issues might be to tackle at source the effect digital media giants are having on the industry by creating a more level playing field in the way news and information content gathering is rewarded. Central to that point is whether news organisations that create the content which the digital companies then use and rely on should be better compensated. In this area is there room to consider the licensing of content created by newspapers but then used elsewhere in the digital world? Such a scheme already works well for recognised publishers through the Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA)”, the Society said.
While the Society recognised that the issues are not easy to tackle, it said, the survival of a thriving independent media landscape which continues to serve at a national and grassroots level is essential in a liberal democracy.
The Society also warned that the media should remain free and that any attempt to restrict what newspapers should and should not publish must take into account the existence of social media platforms and the public’s appetite for seeking out information.
It said: “From experience it is our belief that those in the media industry understand they should be subject to as much scrutiny and debate as they would wish to hold others to. However, a free press would appear to function best when it is just that: free.
“All questions of publicly-funded models to underpin quality journalism flounder when the issue of who must decide what is quality journalism is to be determined. The Society certainly recognises that quality journalism exists just as much in the popular tabloid press as the ‘broadsheet’ publications. Through its long history the Press in the UK, and elsewhere in the world, has learnt that readers wish to find a balance in the news they consume between the worthy and the amusing, the light and the dark side of life. An independent media needs to be able to entertain as well as to inform in order to compete.
“And there is a more practical reason to avoid placing restrictions on what should and should not be investigated and reported: the public’s own enthusiasm to seek out information for itself. The digital age offers easy access to rumour and speculation. The main stream press provides training for its journalists as well as an approach to providing news that is balanced, scrutinised and held to account by an independent regulator such as IPSO to which most of our members belong. Going forward these strengths should surely be protected.”
The Society believes that the focus of any package of measures to ensure a truly independent and thriving media landscape exists into the future should be careful to consider the need for many voices to continue to be heard. No single opinion is correct. It is the plurality of the United Kingdom’s media landscape that ensures it is vibrant and inclusive.
Read the response in full here.
The Cairncross Review was established by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in an effort to examinine the sustainability of high-quality journalism in the UK. The Review is particularly concerned with the Press and says that it will give equal weight to the needs of consumers and industry.