IPSO Blog: The Cairncross Review

Chief Executive Matt Tee responds to the report of the Cairncross Review on the future of sustainable journalism.

This week, Dame Frances Cairncross published her review into the future of quality journalism. Reading it, it bears remembering that she is an economist by background. Much of the analysis is presented as an examination of the market for news.

Cairncross identifies that a consequence of news moving online is that it is disaggregated: In a newspaper we buy a package that gives us a bit of everything; news, features, entertainment, foreign, city and sport. Online, we choose what we want to read and we can avoid that which doesn’t interest us without even turning the page.

Another consequence of the move to online is that, with a few exceptions, we now expect to get our news for free and the advertising that surrounds content online attracts far lower rates than in print – producing the conundrum that, despite more and more people reading the content, the revenues generated make the creation of the content increasingly unsustainable.

Cairncross takes the view that much of this content (say fashion and sport) should concern us less than what she calls public-interest reporting. There are poor market incentives for supply and limited demand, she believes , and the importance of public interest reporting in a democracy means there is a case for intervention in what is a failing market.

For many readers this analysis will not have come as news, although the rigour Cairncross brings to the detail is helpful. Where many will feel a little disappointed with the review is in the recommendations.

While the review calls for a regulatory review of the market for online advertising, this is due to the opacity of the market rather than a finding of unfairness, and the report falls a long way short of calling for a levy on the online publishers.

The review does call for the establishment of an Institute for Public Interest News which would champion public-interest news and amplify efforts to ensure its sustainability. If new business models fail to adequately support public-interest news, the institute could evolve into something akin to the Arts Council, channelling a mixture of public and private money into the industry.

A glimmer of good news for parts of the industry is that Cairncross recommends removing VAT from digital newspapers and magazines, as well as looking at other forms of tax relief.

The report’s recommendations make several references to ‘a regulator’, without specifying who that regulator should be. IPSO clearly has a significant interest in the sustainability of quality news providers and will be keen to be involved in discussions about how these recommendations are implemented.

IPSO was also very pleased to see that one of the report’s recommendations covers media literacy and we look forward to contributing to the Government’s strategy on this, especially in relation to adults.