Technology groups should be forced by a new regulator to ensure their platforms distribute quality news, according to a UK government report that could have big implications for the relationship between Silicon Valley and the media.
Theresa May, prime minister, commissioned the review into the sustainability of the production and distribution of high-quality journalism a year ago in response to concerns about the future of the UK press at a time of falling circulation and tumbling advertising revenues.
Print advertising revenues fell more than two-thirds in the decade to 2017, while the circulation of Britain’s national newspapers fell from 11.5m in 2008 to 5.8m in 2018, according to research firm Mediatique.
The declines have been felt particularly keenly at a local level, with sales of local papers falling from 63.4m copies a week in 2007 to 31.4m in 2017.
The review, led by Frances Cairncross, has concluded that intervention by a state regulator “may be needed to assess the quality of online news”.
Dame Frances said such a regulator would not be an arbiter of news quality — a move that would be likely to draw fierce opposition on Fleet Street — but would instead oversee adherence to a “code of conduct” that could govern commercial relationships between platforms and publishers over the distribution of news content.
She did not specify which regulator could take on this role but suggested oversight of relationships between publishers and platforms could form part of a broader regulatory framework currently being considered by government.
“There are other bits of the digital forest that the government is exploring,” she said, pointing to a recent consultation on possible legislation aimed at making social media safer. “My guess is the government is thinking about a regulator doing more than one job.”
The review, which took contributions from the local and national press, digital publishers and advertisers, calls for an investigation into the workings of the online advertising industry by the Competition and Markets Authority “to ensure fair competition”, as well as an assessment by Ofcom, the UK media regulator, into the “market impact and role” of the BBC.
“Ofcom should assess whether BBC News Online is striking the right balance between aiming for the widest reach of its own content . . . and driving traffic from its online site to commercial publishers,” the review states.
Other recommendations included an “innovation fund” to boost the supply of public interest news, as well as new forms of tax relief and direct funding for local public news initiatives.
Jeremy Wright, culture secretary, said the review set out “the challenges to putting our news media on a stronger and more sustainable footing. There are some things we can take action on immediately while others will need further careful consideration with stakeholders on the best way forward”.
But Tom Watson, Labour’s shadow culture secretary, said “attacking the BBC” was “barking up the wrong tree”.
“While [Dame Frances] has recommended an inquiry into BBC news online, the real problem that the government must deal with is the duopoly in digital advertising, with over half of all revenues going to Facebook and Google.
“As long as tech giants continue to completely dominate the market it’s difficult to see how a sustainable financial footing for journalism can be achieved.”