The Government has recently announced a review into the sustainability of the press. According to its summary of the review’s scope, ‘the UK has always benefited from a strong, well established and diverse press sector’, and the resultant

robust high quality journalism is important for public debate, scrutiny, and ultimately for democratic political discourse. Yet the press currently faces an uncertain future. Print circulations have declined, with readerships moving online, and the shift from print to digital advertising has led to a loss in revenue for the press. The Government is determined to ensure that the UK has a vibrant, independent and plural free press, which is able to provide high quality journalism as one of the cornerstones of our public debate.

 The review’s terms of reference will include:

An overall assessment of the overall state of the market at local, regional and national levels; an assessment of the impact on consumers of a reduction in high quality news provision; an analysis of how the industry is responding to current threats to its financial sustainability and the business models being developed in response; a review of the operation and management of content and data flows so crucial to creating a successful online business; and a detailed consideration of both the role of online platforms and the digital advertising supply chain – including whether advertising revenues are being unfairly diverted away from content producers and if the digital advertising market has encouraged the growth of click-bait. The review into press sustainability will come to a view on whether the problems identified are likely to be resolved as the digital news market evolves and matures, or whether there are underlying and persistent structural market failures which might require intervention.

In the accompanying press release, the minister for Culture, Media and Sport, Matt Hancock, notes that:

A key focus of the review will be the local and regional press, who face an uncertain future. The review will also assess the operation of the digital advertising supply chain including funding flows and its role in creating or reducing value for publishers. It will also look at ‘clickbait’ and low quality news and if there is more that can be done to tackle this issue and undermine any commercial incentives associated with it. Also within the review’s remit will be an examination of how data created or owned by news publications is collected and distributed by online platforms.

The press release also give space to David Dinsmore, the Chairman of the main press owners’ body, the News Media Association (NMA), to welcome the announcement of the report, and to argue that:

Viable business models must be found that ensure a wide variety of media are able to have a long and healthy future. Through digital platforms, news content is more widely consumed than ever before but the revenues to sustain the investment in that quality content are challenged. This review on a sustainable future is very welcome.

A foregone conclusion

Given that the NMA has remorselessly lobbied, both in private and in the pages of the newspapers which it represents, against online news providers outside the charmed circle of its own members, it is manifestly obvious that it is a very far from disinterested commentator on this matter, and the fact that the DCMS chose to quote it in its press release throws very considerable doubt on the motives behind this review. It also suggests that its outcome is largely a foregone conclusion, and one that will simply benefit the press barons to whom the government, like all its predecessors, is permanently in hock.

Such a conclusion is made only the more credible by the oleaginous terms in which the beleaguered Theresa May, absolutely desperate to hang on to the wavering support of the Tory press, welcomed the announcement of the review. Thus she warned that:

When trusted and credible news sources decline, we can become vulnerable to news which is untrustworthy’, and argued that the free press is ‘one of the cornerstones of our public debate’ which had experienced a ‘profound impact’ from technological change.

She continued:

Good quality journalism provides us with the information and analysis we need to inform our viewpoints and conduct a genuine discussion. It is a huge force for good. But in recent years, especially in local journalism, we have seen falling circulations, a hollowing-out of local newsrooms and fears for the future sustainability of high-quality journalism. Over 200 local papers have closed since 2005 … This is dangerous for our democracy. When trusted and credible news sources decline, we can become vulnerable to news which is untrustworthy. So to address this challenge to our public debate, we will launch a review to examine the sustainability of our national and local press. It will look at the different business models for high-quality journalism. And because digital advertising is now one of the essential sources of revenue for newspapers, the review will analyse how that supply chain operates. It will consider whether the creators of content are getting their fair share of advertisement revenue. And it will recommend whether industry or government-led solutions can help improve the sustainability of the sector for the future. A free press is one of the foundations on which our democracy is built and it must be preserved.

‘Not a fair fight’

Altogether unsurprisingly, the review was welcomed by those newspapers whose owners are most likely to benefit from what one strongly suspects will be its findings. The Mail, 7 February, managed to attack several targets at once in its comments:

David Cameron frankly hated the Conservative press. But then he wasn’t really a Conservative. After his brutal regulatory attack on newspapers through the Leveson inquiry – a cynical bid to deflect attention from his crass choice of a voicemail hacker as his communications director – we finally have a Prime Minister who grasps the gravity of what’s at stake.

Inevitably, the same day’s Sun attacked social media for the umpteenth time, complaining:

For years the web giants have sucked the lifeblood from Britain’s news organisations. It has to stop. We’re all for free markets and competition. But it’s not a fair fight. Google and Facebook seize content, expensively produced by everyone from the Sun down to the smallest local paper, post it and take the advertising revenue. Meanwhile they spew out clickbait and fake news … So we hugely welcome Theresa May announcing a Government review into what’s going wrong and how those of us paying to provide the content read by millions can be reimbursed.

Less enthusiastic was the Telegraph, which espied in the announcement a threat to the dominant conception of press freedom amongst national newspapers, namely that they should be free to do whatever they damn well please, arguing that ‘the danger with any state inquiry into the press is that it risks becoming a way of controlling or influencing it’ and demanding that

the threat of another Leveson inquiry should be lifted and a measure passed by the Lords to force newspapers to sign up to a state-backed regulator faced down in the Commons’.

As Roy Greenslade observed in the same day’s Guardian: ‘May, in coming up with this new “review”, has surely consigned that [Leveson 2] to the back burner. Her message: forget phone-hacking, forget press misbehaviour, let’s bring Silicon Valley to heel’.

Julian Petley is Professor of Journalism at Brunel University 

Part 2 of this post will be published tomorrow