IPSO Blog: Responding to the Cairncross Review

Policy and Public Affairs Officer Sophie Malleson looks at some of the issues included in our response to the Cairncross Review on sustainable high-quality journalism in the UK.

The Government has asked Dame Frances Cairncross to investigate how we, as a society, should sustain high-quality journalism. A vibrant and functioning free press is essential for our democracy, so problems with the market in which the press operates are a cause for concern for us all. 

IPSO, along with a number of other groups with an interest in a free, responsible and thriving press, has submitted written evidence to help inform her review. Many of the problems faced by the press don’t have straight-forward solutions, so the review will attempt to address some very complex issues, including challenges to financial sustainability, the role and impact of digital search engines and social media platforms, how content and data flows are operated and managed and the role of digital advertising. 

What are some of the problems facing the press? 

Revenue and the challenge of digital 

One of the main challenges faced by the press today is falling revenue. Like all industries, newspapers and magazines have had to adapt to the technological changes which are shaping the way we live and how we consume our media. As more and more of us go online and use our smartphones, fewer of us are relying on the printed press for our news and entertainment.  

When you buy a newspaper in your local newsagent or visit the paper’s website – many of the articles will be the same or very similar – the newspaper will earn revenue from the sale of the paper and the adverts printed inside. Most newspaper websites are free to access (although some charge subscriptions) and raise revenue through the advertising you see when you visit the website. Publications normally aren’t able to raise the same amount of revenue from online advertising and click-through as they would through the sale of printed papers. And, as more and more people are choosing to read their news online, this causes a drop in overall revenues, which in turn can potentially affect how a newspaper operates. 

It’s the smaller local papers that are least well-equipped to deal with financial pressures, and many have closed in the last ten years. It’s a problem for democracy if whole communities are poorly served by high quality news, with fewer journalists to scrutinise the decisions of the powerful or cover and campaign on local issues. 

Fake news 

Another problem with the move towards accessing our news online is the proliferation of fake news, often disseminated through social media. Without a thriving press, there’s little antidote to online disinformation – and the effect this might have on the public’s ability to participate meaningfully in society should be of concern to us all. 

What are the possible solutions? 

There could be a number of solutions to address these problems – but they are complex issues. 

IPSO’s perspective as a regulator whose job it is to uphold high standards across the press is that there should be no direct subsidies from government, as this would threaten the press’ independence. But might there be other ways to provide financial support to the industry that don’t raise a new set of problems? One proposed solution – which IPSO supports – is that the Government looks to the online advertising market in an effort to address inequalities at the heart of profiting from digital advertising revenue. 

In terms of fake news, we believe that consumers’ ability to be able to be able to identify quality, curated and trusted content is critical. Action needs to be taken to limit harmful fake news which can erode trust in the press. Independent regulation has a key role to play in this, by holding publishers accountable to an external set of standards like the Editors’ Code and helping consumers to easily identify edited, curated, professionally produced products. 

We’ve also been pleased to see many initiatives launched to better educate and inform the public about fake news, including work being done outside of the industry like the Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills, run by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Literacy and the National Literacy Trust, who have recently worked to gather evidence on the impact of fake news on children and young people. 

IPSO fully supports the work of the Cairncross Review in addressing difficult questions for which there are no simple answers or straightforward solutions and we look forward to reading the outcome of the review. 

You can read our full submission here. 


Originally published 21 September 2018.