Jonathan Heawood on Press Gazette: 'We must 'move fast and fix things' to come together and save news industry'

This opinion piece was originally published on Press Gazette on 14 February 2019.

For the first time since the Leveson Inquiry, a smart and independent thinker has taken a serious look at the state of the UK news industry.

Dame Frances Cairncross, supported by an experienced advisory panel, has made nine simple but sweeping recommendations for change. All of us who care about the future of journalism now need to get together and turn these ideas into action.

Cairncross’ core proposal is for an Institute for Public Interest News (IPIN) that will raise and distribute funding for high-quality journalism and innovation in the news industry.

IPIN will also take on responsibility for monitoring the state of the industry and might also take on the media literacy role that Cairncross envisages.

Most of us are still digesting this proposal. But some positions are already taking shape.

On one side are those who welcome Cairncross’ proposed subsidy, but fear it will go into the pockets of the corporate newspaper giants. On the other side are those who also welcome the subsidy, but fear that it will give the state too much power over journalism.

We could see these positions harden over the months ahead, as the Cairncross recommendations are taken forward by policymakers. At worst, we could see the Government disappear into private negotiations with lobbyists on both sides of the argument. This would be a mistake.

We know this because we’ve been here before.

For almost a decade, media policymaking (or the lack of it) has been carried out in the shadow of the Leveson Inquiry. Many of us have been consumed by arcane debates about statutes versus charters, underpinning versus recognition.

Early in the post-Leveson debate, politicians and policymakers went behind closed doors with opposing groups of stakeholders. Trust was swiftly lost, along with transparency, and the ensuing policy package had few friends in the newspaper industry. This should not be allowed to happen again.

Whilst we were boxing at shadows in the aftermath of Leveson, a new breed of heavyweights entered the ring.

Facebook, Google, Twitter and Apple are different beasts, with noble purposes that are undermined by data-hungry business models. But they are not going away. And we should admit that, while they have undoubtedly disrupted the news business, their impact has not been all bad.

The social media economy has allowed news entrepreneurs to emerge in every corner of the UK. Many of these independent start-ups have joined Impress.

They are fragile but aspirational, they follow journalistic standards and play a key democratic role in keeping the public informed. They need and deserve public support. So do more established players whose desire to publish high-quality journalism is not matched by the public’s willingness to pay for it.

Politicians who can’t agree about anything else are finding common ground on this issue. In a divided Parliament, and a divided country, there is rare consensus on the need to support public interest journalism, either directly – through funding – or indirectly – through tax relief.

The big question now is how to direct this subsidy so that it has a lasting impact on the quality and diversity of journalism in the UK. No-one wants to support publishers of misinformation and disinformation. At the same time, no-one wants to give politicians leverage over the press.

We now have an historic opportunity to reset media policy for a generation, using the Cairncross Review as a template. No-one wants to look back in ten years’ time on another wasted decade.

We should build on the values that are shared between news publishers, platforms, government and the public, rather than getting lost in points of difference.

Let’s move fast and fix things.

Jonathan Heawood is chief executive of press regulator Impress.


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