SCOTTISH MEDIA REVIEW by HAMISH MACKAY
MPs report calls for changes to funding of local news
A major new report from MPs serving on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMSC) suggests that there should be substantial changes to the way local news is funded amid fears that its quality and provision will continue to decline without fresh support from the UK Government.
The MPs on the committee have been examining the sustainability of local journalism in the UK and their findings claim that local publishers have struggled to adapt to the shift away from print towards ‘an online world which favours larger players’.
As well as additional government funding, the report is calling for a ‘fairer’ distribution of existing support, suggesting that larger publishers are currently taking a ‘disproportionate’ share.
The report explains: ‘While market consolidation has ensured the survival of newspaper titles, the committee is concerned that some of the approaches of the largest publishers may be reducing the quality of the local journalism produced by their titles. The largest publishers taking a disproportionate share of available support may be stifling much needed innovation. There should be an audit of public money that supports local news and an analysis of whether this could be distributed more fairly’.
The report says that the BBC should reconsider its controversial plans to shift resources from local radio stations to digital services, declaring: ‘The strategy for digital first should not come at the expense of local radio’. It asks that the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporter Service (LDRS) be expanded across more platforms to give access to a wider range of news providers.
The committee discovered that more than 300 local newspaper titles have closed between 2009 and 2019, with surviving news providers often operating with diminished resources and fewer journalists. The report highlights the harmful impact on communities of the resulting decline in access to local news – including a decrease in participation in civic life, less scrutiny of local government decisions, and increasing levels of polarisation and misinformation.
The MPs on the committee considered that one way to help the regional press and local publishers is to set up a fund to support innovation along the lines of the Institute for Public Interest News first proposed in the Cairncross Review of media. The MPs also want to make it easier for local news publishers to achieve charitable status and encourage more philanthropic funding of local journalism.
They say more must be done to ensure that support reaches smaller publishers of local news, and long-awaited digital markets legislation must enable news sites to negotiate a fair commercial relationship with online companies that host their stories, such as Google and Meta. The report argues for the retention of the requirement on councils to place statutory notices in local newspapers, stressing they are ‘an important revenue stream for many local news publisher’.
Damian Green, acting chair of the DCMS Committee, said: ‘With the shift towards online readership swallowing up traditional print revenues, many local newspapers which have served their communities for years have struggled to keep their heads above water.
‘While hundreds have already folded, those that remain are faced with a lack of resources to conduct quality journalism, forcing them into a downward spiral of decline, as readership and therefore revenues continue to fall further. The disappearance of local news providers, which have always acted as the eyes and ears of their readers and held local decision makers to account, has ripped a hole in the heart of many communities.
‘Worryingly, it is the most deprived areas of the country that are most likely to miss out on coverage, compounding the disadvantages they already face. While there are many success stories of innovation, the very nature of having smaller audiences and limited reach means local publishers find it hard to float in a market that rewards scale.
‘The sector can have a sustainable future, but without more support and a rebalancing of the rules to help smaller publishers, the decline in local journalism and all the negative impacts associated with it will continue.’
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) supports the report. Its assistant general secretary, Séamus Dooley, points out: ‘Journalism matters, and any measures designed to protect and promote local journalism are to be welcomed. The NUJ has been in the forefront of promoting public interest journalism and local democracy and shares many of the MPs’ concerns over the threats to the quality and coverage of local news. The report’s proposals are very welcome, and the emphasis on smaller publishers is especially appreciated. The NUJ strongly supports a Journalism Foundation to promote, protect and investigate new ways to fund public interest news’.
ITV prepared to splash the cash when the occasion demands
It certainly appears that ITV is prepared to splash the cash when it feels the occasion demands it. BBC News reporter Sam Francis has revealed that former UK Government Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, was paid £320,000 for taking part in ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here.
The West Suffolk MP, who remains suspended from the Tory Party for taking time off from his parliamentary duties to appear on the TV show, has claimed he made donations to charity from the fee which has been disclosed on the register of MPs’ financial interests.
It has emerged that Hancock received £48,000 for his Pandemic Diaries book, which was serialised in the Daily Mail and the Mail on Sunday. And he has also revealed he earned £45,000 to feature in the Channel 4 show Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins, which will be screened later this year.
Sam Francis points out: ‘Mr Hancock has faced criticism from across the political spectrum for going on the show, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak saying he was very disappointed by the move’.
A spokesperson for Hancock, who says he appeared on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here to ‘show what I am like as a person,’ disclosed: ‘As well as raising the profile of his dyslexia campaign in front of 11 million viewers, Matt’s donated £10,000 to St Nicholas Hospice in Suffolk and the British Dyslexia Association’.
The register of MPs’ interests also reveals that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson was paid £510,000 as an advance for his forthcoming memoir. It follows the announcement by publishers Harper Collins that they had acquired the rights to what was described as a prime ministerial memoir ‘like no other’.
Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is linking up with GB News
Former Cabinet minister and Tory MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is linking up with GB News television channel. The appointment comes almost three months to the day after Rees-Mogg left his last Cabinet role in former Prime Minister Liz Truss’s government. Cabinet Office rules typically prevent outgoing ministers from taking up new employment in the three months following their departure.
GB News says that Rees-Mogg ‘will debate the hot topics of the day and interview big-name guests from across the political spectrum. He will also take his show on tour, regularly broadcasting in front of live audiences in towns and cities across the country’.
The channel’s editorial director, Mick Booker, said the show ‘will embrace a range of guests and viewpoints from all sides of politics but will also explore some of Jacob’s other wide-ranging interests. No doubt classic cars and good Somerset cider will feature at some point’. The launch date for the show has not yet been announced.
Press Gazette reveals that GB News had paid more money to MPs than any other news company, ahead of LBC in second place. GB News paid MPs £82,040 between October 2021 and September 2022.
Tory MPs Philip Davies and Esther McVey already present a programme on the channel while former UKIP and Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage leads a daily primetime show, and former Labour MP Gloria De Piero presents a programme on Saturdays.
Rees-Mogg said: ‘GB News is a bastion of free speech which clearly has its finger uniquely on the pulse of public opinion and does not talk down to its viewers and listeners. I have been impressed by the channel’s independent-mindedness and its determination to talk to people with many different perspectives, which is exactly what I will do on my programme’.
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Caithness-born Hamish Mackay is now in his 57th year as an occasional/sometimes regular contributor to the UK’s exceedingly diverse media market