Government must ensure platforms do not abuse their power as gatekeepers of news
The Cairncross Review demands Government address the impact of platforms as mediators on the quality of the news, and the asymmetry of power between platform and publishers – when it comes to revenue, writes Baroness Kidron.
It has been a year since Dame Frances Cairncross published her review A Sustainable Future for Journalism. Cairncross’ remit was “to consider the sustainability of the production and distribution of high-quality journalism and especially the future of the press”.
Although the government’s response broadly welcomed the review it did not address the two intrinsically linked systemic points that she highlights: the impact of platforms as mediators on the quality of the news, and the asymmetry of power between platform and publishers – when it comes to revenue.
Platforms as mediators
A thematic issue of the review is the pressure of new distribution models on the quality of journalism itself. Whilst the erosion of revenue, hollows out the sectors ability to cover stories and hold institutions to account, there are other factors intrinsic to the platform model that drive the quality of a readers’ news experience downward.
Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google & YouTube measure views, likes and retweets, not the quality of the news they share. Under the guise of being “user first” they are focussed on building algorithms to increase engagement and with it their revenues — not people’s understanding of what’s happening in the world.
A user journey, with a diet of financial, entertainment, political and international news – as readers made their way from the front page to the sports page, has been replaced by unbundled news. Bite-sized snacks driven by an opaque list of inputs that optimise user engagement, often difficult for readers to know or recall the source.
News also vies for attention, and revenue, with clickbait misinformation and disinformation masquerading as news – these are not victimless crimes — it’s children who get measles, pensioners who give up their savings, and individuals who vote on false promises.
The business model of news
The platform model of distribution has also seen news sector revenue plummet - as classified and display ads moved wholesale from publishers to platforms, particularly Google, and where targeted advertising is king. The algorithms that mediate the news contribute to making the duopoly of Google and FB eye wateringly rich and the news sector increasingly poor.
Whilst news producers provide free content to platforms for a share of the value they create, they also reach an audience, remaining at the mercy of news feed algorithms that can, at the whim of a platform, be changed for no transparent reason – giving platforms the power to literally bury the news.
The failing business model hits the local press the hardest. The Yorkshire Evening Post showed the societal value of having local reporters – when they broke the story of a child being treated on a NHS hospital floor, the subsequent false discrediting of the story on social media, showed the financial value in misinformation, a common imbalance. The Editors’ plea while giving evidence to the Digital Democracy Committee was that the Post needed a fairer share of the value of the content they produce, without it they can’t put reporters on the front line.
The BBC is undermined by sustained campaigning by parts of the government and the media to diminish its news service and its presence more generally - but wherever your sympathies lie, and as its future hangs in the balance, it is worth noting that in context where trust in institutions is catastrophically low, BBC news is trusted by 79% of the population. A statistic any platform or politician would beg for.
People need the tools to identify the trustworthiness of a source and an understanding of the platform’s algorithms, how they impact on what they see, and who benefits from the interactions they have online. But media literacy is not a substitute for cleaning up the hostile environment in which the news now sits.
The supports and recommendations of the Cairncross review are important steps to supporting a sustainable news sector, including an innovation fund, tax breaks and direct investments in public interest journalism – but fundamentally, what is needed is for competition authorities and government to ensure that platforms, do not abuse their powers as gatekeepers, and that there is transparency, accountability and a fair revenue share for content creators of all kinds, including the press.
Baroness Kidron is a Crossbench Member of the House of Lords.
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