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November 27, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:49am

Peers make case for freelance pay reform and BBC News aggregator to help UK journalism ‘survive and thrive’

By Charlotte Tobitt

From following in the footsteps of Australia to force platforms to pay for news to paying freelances more fairly, peers have made a series of practical suggestions to ensure the journalism industry in the UK “survives and thrives”.

The most attention-grabbing proposal from the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee’s Future of Journalism report, published on Friday, was the call for urgency to create a Digital Markets Unit to rein in the dominance and power of platforms such as Google and Facebook.

The Government in fact simultaneously announced the creation of the new competition regime on Friday morning in its response to the Competition and Markets Authority’s market study into digital advertising and online platforms.

“Publishers need platforms far more than the platforms need them; and publishers are disadvantaged by a dysfunctional online advertising market,” peers carrying out the Future of Journalism inquiry, chaired by Lord Gilbert of Panteg (pictured) said.

“It is essential that the Government acts swiftly to remedy this and sets aside legislative time to establish a Digital Markets Unit.”

[Read more: Government to create competition regime tackling ‘fundamental imbalance of power’ between platforms and publishers]

The unit will enforce a new code of conduct regulating the behaviour of the big tech platforms, which will in part govern their commercial relationships in a similar style to Australia’s high-profile proposals.

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But the Future of Journalism report also contained a ream of other recommendations that could yet see action, which we have broken down below.

‘More coherent’ funding approach

The Government should take the lead to develop a more strategic approach to funding journalism, the report said.

It pointed to the prevalence of piecemeal schemes including the BBC Local Democracy Reporter scheme, Facebook’s Community News Project, the Google News Initiative, and grants from innovation fund Nesta.

“The Government should use its convening power to provide a forum for organisations to co-ordinate their schemes and share successes,” it said.

“Encouraging greater coherence will help funds more effectively support established news media organisations to adapt to rapid digital change.

“The Government should encourage those with the deepest pockets to come together, step-up and support journalism—both now and as new challenges emerge in future.”

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, suggested the report had missed the opportunity to be “bolder” and call for a levy on tech giants that would “provide the means to support innovation and plurality and help this industry out of the crisis caused by the pandemic and towards better health”.

She added: “A more strategic body – such as a Journalism Foundation – is needed to increase media plurality, champion public interest journalism and rebuild the present broken media model.”

Greater online powers for Ofcom

Ofcom currently regulates all of the UK’s radio and TV content – but none of what those same broadcasters publish online.

Peers suggested Ofcom should be empowered to regulate online content “in the same way” as broadcast programmes.

“Public service broadcasters have a special role in the provision of impartial and accurate news; it is important that trust in their brands is preserved,” they said.

They also raised concerns about the lack of distinction between the official online accounts of public service broadcasters and those of their journalists.

The BBC has recently created strict guidelines on personal social media use for its journalists while Channel 4 and Sky News have both imposed restrictions on journalists posting about politics in the past year.

The report concluded that Ofcom should ensure broadcasters monitor the accuracy and impartiality of their journalists’ public posts and take action where necessary.

Modernising courts

Peers called the restrictions on recording in courts “arguably outdated in today’s multimedia news environment” and called for the law to be reviewed – especially as publicising the work of public bodies is a key role of journalism.

Richard Jones, senior lecturer in journalism at the University of Huddersfield, had argued the ban on audio recording devices was made “with the convenience of court users such as barristers in mind, outweighing open justice considerations”.

He said: “Permitting journalists to record court proceedings in audio form would allow the creation of source material that could be used in journalistic content.

“Letting reporters put their phones on a table in front of a barrister giving an opening statement, or a judge delivering sentencing remarks, much in the manner of recorders left running at a press conference, seems an unobtrusive way of allowing journalists to do this.”

The report also suggested that the increased livestreaming of certain court hearings that has taken place during the Covid-19 pandemic should be made a permanent feature of the justice system.

BBC News aggregation

The inquiry heard concerns that smaller news organisations “can be a victim of the BBC’s online success”.

New Statesman editor Jason Cowley spoke of the “huge and powerful” BBC forcing other news websites to be “nimble and pragmatic”. Spectator editor Fraser Nelson added: “The digital world has allowed the BBC, the hegemon of the industry, to occupy space it never occupied before. That makes it tougher for local newspapers.”

[Read more: Reach editor-in-chief says BBC News website an ‘all-consuming monster’ that’s not in ‘spirit’ of charter obligations]

The report therefore recommended that BBC News adds an aggregator section to its website and app “to support pluralism in the industry” by linking to stories from smaller and local news organisations.

News Media Association chairman David Dinsmore suggested the BBC could be “a phenomenal marketing portal” with “a huge impact” on the local news industry if it published only a headline and link to a story on a local newspaper’s website rather than writing up its own version.

Ofcom this week praised the BBC for acting on its recommendation to link to more third-party local news sources to support the wider industry.

A BBC spokesperson said: “We agree that the BBC has a role to play in sustaining a healthy news environment and supporting a plurality of providers which is why we fund the Local Democracy Reporters initiative and promote other local news stories through an aggregator underneath articles and through external links.

“However, wider analysis of the industry and international comparisons suggest that it is the erosion of digital advertising revenues and the decline of print and classified adverts which are the biggest challenges to commercial local journalism, not public service journalism.”

Media literacy

Earlier this year the Government accepted a recommendation from the Cairncross Review to develop a media literacy strategy alongside Ofcom and the news industry.

But peers said better co-ordination is needed across Government, media organisations, platforms, academia and charities to make it a key part of education curriculums.

The peers suggested this could be led by Ofcom or another existing body but said a new regulator should not be created “given the crowded regulatory landscape”.

The issue is “crucial”, particularly among lower socio-economic groups and older people, they said.

Media literacy should go beyond teaching how to identify fake news, instead helping people understand “journalistic processes and their value, how news is presented, how it is funded and to what degree funding is transparent”.

Diversity charter

Peers said ensuring more journalists from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds could enter the profession would also help to build confidence in the media.

[Read more: How industry leaders can improve newsroom diversity]

They called for an end to unpaid internships, saying interns should be paid enough to cover all expenses, including accommodation, to help equality of opportunity for those entering the industry.

They said this commitment should be part of an industry-wide diversity charter, which would also commit news organisations to advertising all vacancies openly, finding ways to recruit interns that level the playing field as much as possible, and publishing annual workforce diversity data.

‘Unfair’ freelance payment practices

Peers raised concerns about the “significant imbalance of power” between freelance journalists and publishers they deal with.

They called on the Government and Small Business Commissioner to work together with freelances to address issues with “unfair” practices like late payment, payment on publication and kill fees.

Freelance journalist Anna Codrea-Rado told the inquiry there “needs to be some cultural change, through which freelancers are treated with the respect that they deserve”.

She said payment on publication creates a “a big cashflow problem” for journalists, giving the example of evergreen pieces that are delayed by a busy news cycle.

“You cannot plan for your cash flow and you do not know when you are going to get paid,” she said. “Depending on whether you are paid by the word or by the piece, you also in some cases do not even know the amount that you are going to get paid.”

Peers also asked the Government to consider the case for stronger legislation protecting the rights of freelances, pointing specifically to whether contract law should be amended so they are not solely liable for legal costs arising from their work and whether copyright law should make freelance-author copyright ownership “inalienable” so journalists can freelancers sell licences for reuse of their work.

Also on Friday the NUJ published a Freelance Charter calling for the right to fair fees and prompt payment, fair written contracts, and equal rights with staff employees.

Stanistreet said rights and protections for freelances and self-employed had been proved “woefully lacking” this year.

“The Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated the need for a massive wake-up call about working practices in the media industry and shown why reformed public policy for freelances and the self-employed is vital,” she said.

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