Dame Frances Cairncross was bang on the money to say that while extra funding is needed for public interest journalism its delivery should not be controlled by media publishers.
Among its various findings, the recently published Cairncross Review has recommended the setting up of a publicly funded ‘Institute for Public Interest News’ and has insisted this should be independent of both media publishers and the government.
Unsurprisingly, although the media industry enthusiastically welcomed the prospect of extra funding, it was wary about what kind of power any such institute should have.
The Society of Editors’ (SoE) own coverage of the Cairncross Review gave the idea faint praise by saying it “notes recommendations” for an institute but wanted to “ensure” this did “not damage the vibrant and independent media industry”.
Ian Murray, executive director of the SoE, added: “The Press in the UK has not fought long and hard to maintain its independence and freedom to then find itself regulated by state-appointed bodies, no matter how well-meaning was their original creation.”
“Any support must be done in a way that maximises its contribution to local journalism – and this is best done by leveraging the extremely effective and efficient infrastructure already in place in regional publisher newsrooms up and down the country,” he said.
“Diverting funds to setting up an alternative news publishing infrastructure or activities that directly compete with existing local publishers would further undermine the business model for quality local journalism and risks not being sustainable.”
In summary, the UK media industry is saying (my words): “We’d welcome the money, but we want to control how it’s spent, thank you, not have some institute that effectively decides what happens.”
While no-one wants any full-on regulator of journalism, the view of this blogger is that there must be some control of external funds for public interest journalism – or they could quickly be soaked up by profit-seeking publishers.
No-one can blame this profit-seeking, by the way: the vast majority of regional media are owned by public limited companies and it would be an abrogation of their duty not to make the highest profits possible for shareholders
But that’s exactly why any new funding for an extended public interest journalism project cannot be left to the publishers’ own infrastructures to dominate. As the Cairncross Review said, it’s because of the “market failure” in the supply of public interest news that public intervention is needed in the first place.
The proposals suggest the new institute should eventually run the Local Democracy Reporters scheme currently overseen by the BBC and the publishers’ News Media Association.
I think it should happen sooner rather than later, especially if that scheme is to be extended.
Publishers have already called for it to be increased ten-fold with more than 1,500 ‘public interest journalists’ covering the UK’s 800 local councils and 400 courts, which is a great aspiration.
However, if the BBC and private giants like Google and Facebook are potential funders of such a huge expansion, it would be very odd for UK media publishers to continue running the scheme.
Why? Because that would inevitably risk it being used to replace staff made redundant as part of publishers’ ongoing cost-management plans.
Instead, a properly formed institute could make sure funds are used to guarantee public interest journalism, not just to subsidise the mainly private companies whose staffing, coverage and – to be cynical – editorial budgets could benefit.
That doesn’t mean publishers wouldn’t play a part: the institute would have a board, and organisations funding or benefiting from the resource could and should be members.
But oversight, ultimate decisions and – if needed – control of public interest funding should fall to the institute’s executive, which would be entirely independent, ensuring that what could be a mixture of public (eg, BBC) and private (eg, internet giants’) finance is completely free from political or commercial obligations.
Such an institute’s role wouldn’t be unlike what the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) is currently providing for its Community News Project funded by Facebook, and if proposals are invited perhaps the NCTJ itself might suggest forming a more structured offshoot as an institute.
That’s just one of many possibilities, but the main point of this blog is that the Cairncross Review is correct to insist that any such institute must, for good reasons, remain independent of the media industry it will end up supporting.