The Cairncross Review Call for Evidence [pdf] states that the ‘review’s objective is to establish how far and by what means we can secure a sustainable future for high quality journalism, particularly for news’, asks respondents whether ‘the future of high-quality journalism in the UK is at risk – at national, regional and/or local levels’, and argues that ‘high quality journalism plays a critical role in our democratic system, in particular through holding power to account, and its independence must be safeguarded’.

The former culture secretary Matt Hancock and the review’s own chair have both stated that the review’s purpose is not to safeguard the journalistic status quo, but the above statements strongly suggest that the position from which the review has started is that ‘high quality journalism’ already exists in the UK and needs to be protected, and elsewhere in the call for evidence it becomes clear that what it needs to be protected from primarily are the incursions of digital interlopers of one kind or another.

The problem with such a position is that there is abundant evidence to suggest that ‘high quality journalism’ is largely absent from a significant section of the British media, namely the national press. Furthermore, the dubious circumstances surrounding the review’s creation lead one strongly to believe that it was founded, largely at the behest of the News Media Association (NMA), simply to come up with ways of channelling monies from what, for simplicity’s sake, I will henceforth call the digital media, to the existing national and local/regional press oligopoly.

I have already made my views on the review’s creation abundantly clear, here and here, and I do not want to repeat them again. Nor do I want to impugn the integrity of the review process. However, I have to say that remarks made by Matt Hancock after I had written the two pieces cited above serve only to deepen suspicions that his purpose in establishing  the review was simply to curry favour with the press oligarchs by attempting to sustain precisely the kind of press journalism which has made Britain’s national newspapers the least trusted in the European Union and has undoubtedly contributed to their catastrophic circulation figures.

In particular, Hancock’s oleaginous tributes to the ‘Fourth Estate’ simply confuse the role which the press should indeed play in a democratic society with the role actually played by most national newspapers in the UK today. For example, his claim that ‘our fearless and independent press plays a vital role in informing citizens and is one of the foundations on which our democracy is built’ is immediately contradicted by the truly vast amounts of evidence to the contrary generated by the Leveson Inquiry (part two of which Hancock summarily cancelled), and by virtually every page of the Inquiry’s report. The same goes for his argument that newspapers ‘hold the powerful to account, uncover injustices’ and provide ‘a vital public service, for without them our democracy would be undermined’. Furthermore, the idea that the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) represents a ‘robust mechanism’ which successfully addresses ‘disinformation’ in the press industry simply does not stand up to one moment’s scrutiny: see, for example, here and here, and note its almost total inaction over one of the most shocking and execrable examples of ‘journalism’ in recent times: the Andrew Norfolk ‘Muslim foster care’ story in The Times, August 2017.

However, Hancock appears to believe that ‘disinformation’ is to be found only in online news sources. Thus The Times, 28 June 2018, (a newspaper which could clearly stand to benefit greatly from a tax on the digital realm funnelled to the national press ) gave him a great deal of uncontested space in which to complain that the arrival of digital journalism ‘has helped fuel the rise and fast spreading of disinformation, whether peddled for commercial gain as clickbait or for more insidious purposes by hostile actors’, and to enquire: ‘How can we ensure online journalism remains accountable and subject to the same professional and ethical standards as print journalism?’, a prospect which should fill anyone even remotely familiar with the modus operandi of IPSO with the most profound dread and foreboding.

The point about this excursion into the origins of the review is simply to stress again the point made in my earlier articles cited above: namely, from the manner in which the review was announced, and from the enthusiastic support which it immediately received from the NMA (quoted, no less, in the accompanying DCMS press release), a very definite set of parameters appears to have been established within which the review’s discussions would be expected to take place. (This exactly mirrors the manner in which the DCMS select committee inquiry into ‘fake news’ was set up in a manner which quite specifically excluded consideration of the British press, itself a considerable generator of such news). Whether or not the review moves beyond these parameters remains to be seen, but it has to be said that the make-up of the panel, which could have been hand-picked by the NMA, does not exactly inspire confidence: no NUJ members, no senior journalism academics (all but two of whom are extremely critical of the British national press, so perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised), and various representatives of those self-same regional and national publishers who bear such a heavy responsibility for the wretched state of the UK press at both national and regional/local levels.

That the press is indeed in a parlous state is, of course, beyond dispute. Much of the regional/local press, which does indeed play an important democratic role, has been decimated by job cuts (although shareholders in it, by contrast, have been handsomely rewarded), whilst most of the national press (I would exclude the Guardian/Observer and the Financial Times) has become synonymous, and by no means only in Britain, with debased and degraded journalistic standards – and indeed, in certain cases, with outright criminality. But the crucial point to bear in mind here is that there is absolutely nothing new in this situation, and it is one which predates the digital era by decades. Widespread concern about appalling  press standards gave rise to the first Royal Commission on the Press in 1949, and this led to the creation of the Press Council (in the teeth of fierce newspaper opposition) in 1953, while Francis Williams’s classic Dangerous Estate appeared in 1958 and James Curran’s highly critical collection, The British Press: a Manifesto, in 1977. Further back still, Stanley Baldwin famously remarked in 1931 that:

The newspapers attacking me are not newspapers in the ordinary sense. They are engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal vices, personal likes and dislikes of the two men. What are their methods? Their methods are direct falsehoods, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker’s meaning by publishing a sentence apart from the context …What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages“.

Exactly the same could be said by those today who find themselves the object of hate campaigns by certain extremely powerful newspapers, be they Anna Soubry, Jeremy Corbyn, Gina Miller or certain members of the judiciary.

Furthermore, the troubles of the local press have a far longer history than Hancock’s remarks suggest. Thus, for example, in an early book on the subject, What News?: The Market, Politics and the Local Press, by Bob Franklin and David Murphy (Routledge, 1991), the authors bemoan the fact that

a new sort of commercial local press has developed: owned by conglomerates, driven by the need for advertising, employing fewer journalists, who are low-paid and producing news which is geared to low cost production in the interests of sustaining more advertising. The localism of the local press is increasingly illusory; the market, ownership, the political system and cultural influences such as notions of style are increasingly homogenized and centralised. There is in prospect no visible countervailing tendency which would suggest a reinvigoration of the local press as a means of scrutinizing or informing a system of local politics which has been stifled and undermined.

Sound familiar?

These considerations lead me to two conclusions. Firstly, any review which blames the problems of the British press simply on the arrival of digital media, rather than examining long-term structural and systemic problems, is largely doomed to failure from the start. Second, the review is in urgent need of a definition of exactly what it means by the ‘high-quality journalism’ which it wants to protect and indeed nurture. What this should, of course, encompass are the values and ideals entailed by the concept of the Fourth Estate, so often invoked by British national newspapers but so rarely put into practice. This means, essentially, journalism which operates in the public interest, for the benefit of citizens and in support of the democratic process. It is this form of journalism, in whichever medium it occurs, which should be the recipient of the kinds of financial support apparently envisaged by the DCMS when setting up this review. And it is this kind of journalism which should be the recipient of the forms of support envisaged by the Media Reform Coalition, the Reuters Institute, the Cass Business School and indeed Jeremy Corbyn.

However, this immediately raises the question of who will define which forms of journalism fulfil the Fourth Estate/public interest criteria, and which, accordingly, may be eligible for subsidy by what it must be stressed would be public money, or publicly-directed money, raised by government via some form of levy on the digital media. It is thus absolutely axiomatic that any disbursements must be made entirely independent of both the government and of media interests. If it is not independent of the former then it opens up the very distinct possibility that politicians (or their appointees) will use these public funds to reward friendly media outlets – a very real likelihood given the unhealthily intimate relationships between elements of the national press and certain politicians, a situation strongly criticised by Leveson. And it would be entirely unacceptable if the disbursements were made by members of the media industries themselves, since their own vested interests would render the whole process open to corruption, whilst the extremely low public esteem in which many of them, particularly those in the national press, are held would undoubtedly undermine the public’s faith in the whole exercise. This is particularly important in the light of the very strong suspicion, mentioned earlier, that the NMA lobbied the government specifically to produce a scheme which would enable its members to benefit from exactly the kind of public subsidy which their newspapers vehemently condemn when others, most notably the BBC, are the beneficiaries.

These considerations are also highly relevant to the conduct of the panel itself, since so many of its members are employed by or represent organisations that might well benefit from its recommendations. If members were seen to be arguing for the feathering of their own nests this would not only rob the review of any vestiges of credibility that it may possess but would also lay it open to the charge of corruption, not least as it was commissioned by government and is being paid for by taxpayers out of the public purse. Quite a responsibility, particularly for a body with such questionable origins in what looks suspiciously like one of those disreputable, mutually beneficial deals which unfortunately characterise the unhealthy  relations between the national press and politicians in the UK, and which Leveson’s strictures have done absolutely nothing to remedy.

Julian Petley is Professor of Journalism at Brunel University.