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January 27, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 8:51am

Government rejects institute for news proposed by Cairncross Review to help save UK journalism

By Freddy Mayhew

The Government has rejected a recommendation to create an Institute for Public Interest News as part of proposals to help save the news industry.

Establishing the institute was one of nine proposals put forward by Dame Frances Cairncross in her review into the sustainability of the UK news industry, which was published in February last year.

Almost a year and an election later, the Government has finally responded.

Cairncross said the institute would “amplify efforts” to ensure the future of public interest news as an independent body tasked with pursuing it.

But the Government has said it is not for it to lead on this issue or to define “what qualifies as ‘public interest’ news” in its response set out by Culture Secretary Baroness Nicky Morgan (pictured).

“While any institute would be at arm’s length from government, we recognise concerns that even an arm’s length relationship risks perceptions of inappropriate government interference with the press,” it said.

The Cairncross Review also recommended creating an innovation fund, an online code of conduct and regulator for tech platforms, the development of a media literacy strategy and tax reliefs.

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It proposed a market review of the digital advertising market, an Ofcom review into the BBC and the expansion of the Local Democracy Reporters scheme, which forms part of its £8m-a-year Local News Partnership.

A number of these recommendations have already been met.

Progress so far

The Government has established a pilot £2m digital innovation fund which opened to bidders last year. It revealed today that grants had been awarded to 19 projects out of 178 applicants, with more details to follow shortly.

The Competition and Markets Authority will deliver the final report on its investigation into the online advertising market in July this year, after which the Government has said it will “take action” as appropriate.

It added: “It is important that the government takes a careful and considered approach to this work and that continued efforts are made to encourage a more transparent and responsible online advertising industry.”

An Ofcom review of the BBC’s news output found it could do more to support the wider media industry and link to other news websites. The broadcast watchdog is said to be gathering more evidence on the matter.

The Government said it “welcomes the positive work the BBC already conducts and will continue to work with the BBC to explore what more it could do to support local news publishers”.

Local Democracy Reporter scheme

The BBC Local Democracy Reporter scheme has installed up to 150 journalists across the UK covering local authorities since it launched in 2017, with the final few journalists put in place last summer.

The BBC has already proposed expanding the scheme by creating a charitable body to bring in external funding. It said this could lead to the creation of a new court reporting service.

The Government today said it is “supportive of this approach and will follow developments in this area closely”.

“This is an area of reporting that is significantly under provided and yet essential to journalism’s role of holding those in authority to account,” it added.

It also called for a review of the scheme, due to be carried out by the BBC this year, to “go beyond assessing whether the service is meeting the aims set by it for the BBC, to consider how it might be adjusted and expanded to meet the needs of both the news industry and of citizens”.

Tax relief and charity status

The Government said it is committed to extending business rate relief for local newspapers, which has been in place since 2017, until the end of March 2025.

It also said the Chancellor of the Exchequer would “consider the case for a range of potential tax incentives to support the news publishing industry this year”.

But it said it did not believe awarding charity status to news publishers would be a “suitable model” for most, saying they “would be either unwilling or unable to register and operate as charities”.

It pointed to news publishers’ concerns that they would no longer be “for profit” companies or able to support political parties under charity rules.

The Government said it was “not persuaded” that changes to charitable status should be made to accommodate news publishers.

“Charity as a formal status has a special meaning that relies on public trust and goodwill and needs to be applied consistently,” it said.

Online code and regulator

The Government has said it agrees that a code of conduct formalising the relationships between news publishers and online platforms “may help to rebalance” the relationship between them.

It said it is working with interested parties to further assess this over the coming months, forming part of a wider programme of work on its approach to competition policy in digital platform markets.

It agreed that tech platforms should take steps to help users identify the reliability and trustworthiness of news sources, acknowledging that “news publishers are becoming increasingly dependent on online platforms for reach and distribution”.

The platforms themselves have already taken steps to address this. Facebook has hired UK fact-checking charity Full Fact to check posts on its News Feed, while Twitter has banned all political advertising.

The Government also accepted a recommendation to develop a media literacy strategy alongside Ofcom and the news industry.

In both these cases the Government pointed to its Online Harms White Paper, which set out plans for tough new online safety laws to be overseen by an independent regulator, as well as a media literacy strategy.

Future of press ‘under threat’

In a statement alongside the Government’s response to the Cairncross Review, Baroness Morgan said: “At the heart of any thriving democracy is a free and vibrant press.

“Its role in holding power to account and keeping the public informed of local, national and international issues is vital, and yet in this country its future is under threat.”

The Government said it is committed to continuing a “regular dialogue” with publishers and platforms to assess progress on the recommendations it is taking forward and to review developments within the industry.

It said it “will ensure that there are further opportunities to help identify additional interventions, where and when they are considered necessary”.

Picture: DCMS

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