With the News Media Association’s (NMA) annual Journalism Matters week fast approaching, we look forward to once again celebrating the vital role of journalism for society and democracy, highlighting some of the brilliant campaigns by news brands across local, regional and national press over the past twelve months. And, of course, serving up a reminder of what is at stake for the news media industry in the coming year.
For a decade or more, the NMA has campaigned to highlight and challenge the abusive practices of the tech giants, which have penalised news publishers and acted as a disservice to users. With governments around the world finally catching up and looking to tackle these abuses, we have seen platforms react with news blackouts in Australia and Canada, with threats also made in the US, all because sensible legislation has been put forward that would enforce fair remuneration from platforms for the use of news publishers’ journalism.
The aggressive tactics from the dominant tech platforms directly harm the public’s access to genuine and authoritative sources of news and information; if that is not a demonstration of abuse of power, I don’t know what is!
Demise of Facebook News tab
Just last month, Meta made the decision to end funding of the Community News Project and the dedicated Facebook News tab in the UK. While both disappointing and frustrating, this came as no surprise. Despite their claims to recognise the importance of trusted news, and to support publishers as they adapt to a digital-first world, Meta has acted otherwise, claiming, “We know that people don’t come to Facebook for news”1.
They make such ludicrous claims despite Ofcom’s News Consumption2 report continuing to show that Facebook and other social media platforms are a key destination for news, with Facebook the third most prevalent source of news for UK consumers, accessed by 30 per cent of adults, and seven per cent naming the platform as their single most important source for news.
The consequences of powerful tech platforms downgrading or removing trusted news entirely are far-reaching and dangerous. Just a few months ago, the Guardian reported that Meta’s news ban in Canada had affected public safety communications concerning Canada’s wildfires.
The Guardian reported that residents of Yellowknife City had said the news blackout on Facebook and Instagram had resulted in accurate information about the wildfires and evacuation being hard to access, with officials instead having to direct the public to local media live blogs and radio to combat the rampant misinformation found on Facebook amid the blackout.
As we head into 2024, major Western democracies are holding key elections – the UK goes to the polls sometime before January 2025, the USA will elect the next president in November 2024, and across the EU, citizens will vote in European Parliament elections in June. In a democracy, a free press is crucial, but a free press is weakened and stifled if citizens cannot access journalism because the distribution channels are controlled and manipulated by a few powerful players.
We cannot let this happen in the UK. Meta’s actions in Canada have clearly shown the disastrous consequences of not having access to reliable news through the major platforms which, whether we like it or not, are an important gateway for news.
Digital Markets Unit
This is why the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill is so vital – not just for news publishers, but for all UK citizens and consumers.
The bill will give the Digital Markets Unit (within the Competition and Markets Authority) the powers to rebalance the digital ecosystem. The DMU will be able to designate platforms with ‘strategic market status’ and require them to trade on ‘fair and reasonable’ terms. This should see the largest tech platforms forced to negotiate with news publishers over the use of their content, and ensure publishers are finally rewarded for the content they create and invest so heavily in. The legislation will also allow the regulator to require greater transparency over data and algorithms, supporting media plurality.
The bill is currently before parliament and should pass into law early in the new year, but regulators will need time to put these new powers to use. Responsible tech should collaborate with publishers to address these immediate challenges and find workable solutions that ensure citizens have access to reliable sources of news and information in the critical year ahead. We know for sure enemies of the West will be deploying their own disinformation campaigns, supercharged by AI, to disrupt democracy.
Despite these challenges, the industry continues to find new ways to bring trusted journalism to audiences.
A report on the sustainability of local journalism from Enders Analysis earlier this year argues that local news media continues to innovate. As publishers reach larger audiences than ever through digital channels, the sector can continue to flourish with the right short-term government support in crucial areas, such as increasing its share of ad spend in news media titles.
The Public Notice Portal, a pioneering project from the local media sector, demonstrates how news publishers continue to come up with new and creative ideas to support their communities. The portal aims to promote public notices to its readers and enhance local democracy through the sector’s massive online audiences. Created by local news publishers and supported by the Google News Initiative, the portal is a great example of how a tech firm can collaborate with publishers to drive innovation, supporting sustainable journalism and public access to critical information.
BBC stepping on publishers’ toes
Another actor who should be working with the commercial news sector to support public access to trusted sources of news and information is the BBC, whose plans to cut local radio and push further into written local news online pose a major threat. Under the plans, the BBC intends to needlessly increase its online news provision into local areas that are already well served by news publishers. Local publishers will face competition from local news websites that are funded by the licence fee, with detrimental impacts on their own websites’ audience, ability to build reader revenue, and vital advertising revenue.
Without a financially sustainable model, we run the risk of losing cherished news brands forever. The wildfire crisis in Canada has shown us just how much this will hurt us all.
We also have grave concerns for press freedom in this country. The NMA continues to urge the government to expedite the Media Bill, currently in Draft form, which includes the crucial repeal of Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. If enacted, this provision would compel news brands that have not signed up to government-backed regulation to pay for all legal costs in libel and privacy cases, even if they win the case.
This pernicious legislation does not support a democratic society but rather penalises news publishers for their hard-hitting, dedicated journalism that often uncovers corruption and wrongdoing. It is critical for all publishers that Section 40 is removed from the statute books for the sake of press freedom in this country. All eyes are on the King’s Speech in November to confirm the government’s intent.
SLAPP cases (strategic lawsuits against public participation) are another ongoing threat to a free press. Wealthy individuals and corporations use these lawsuits to intimidate, silence and harass journalists, curbing public interest journalism and legitimate scrutiny.
Such practices constitute a serious misuse of our limited public resources and an abuse of our legal system. Although the Economic Crime Bill has introduced some safeguards against SLAPPs, these measures must go further to protect all public interest journalism. The whole industry has welcomed a recently established taskforce dedicated to tackling SLAPPs which was announced by the government in September. We need all political parties to commit to acting on the recommendations of the taskforce and to legislate in the next parliament.
As we can see, trusted news sources have become increasingly important due to the rising spread of mis and disinformation in recent years. With the proliferation of AI technology, these sources will become even more vital in helping us navigate and comprehend what we find online, especially with a general election on the horizon where the need to distinguish fact from fiction will be paramount.
As we navigate through these challenging times, it is vital we acknowledge the unique obstacles news media publishers are facing. By implementing the right measures and providing targeted support, we can ensure publishers can continue to provide valuable news and information to their audiences for a long time to come.
Journalism Matters week is running from 30 October to 5 November.
This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.