How to support 'high quality journalism'
SUBMISSION TO THE CAIRNCROSS REVIEW
BY PROFESSOR BRIAN CATHCART
14 September 2018
I have been Professor of Journalism at Kingston University London since 2006 and was one of the founders and subsequently the first director of Hacked Off. I was a working journalist for almost 30 years, at Reuters, the Independent papers, the New Statesman and as a freelance, and I am the author of several books, including The Case of Stephen Lawrence (1999) and Everybody’s Hacked Off: Why we don’t have the press we deserve (2012). I have been specialist adviser to the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport and I gave evidence twice at the Leveson Inquiry. I currently blog about ethics and the press at byline.com, which is regulated by IMPRESS.
1.) My submission addresses an issue that is central to the remit of the Review but is not addressed directly in any of the questions put forward in the call for evidence (though it is relevant to question 6): how can the Review and the government define the ‘high quality journalism’ referred to in the Review’s Terms of Reference? A definition is essential but, for both the Review and the government, practically and ethically problematic. The answer to this problem is to allow the Press Recognition Panel to be the definer. This is also the key to addressing a second vital problem: how to disburse public money, or publicly-directed money, in such a way that it will benefit groups and individuals that the public will be able to recognise and accept as providers of high quality journalism. Journalism that is regulated to Leveson and Royal Charter standards is capable of being defined, more objectively than by any other means, as journalism of high quality. The submission therefore proposes that the Review should recommend that any future support provided to high quality journalism from the public purse or by government agency, direct or indirect, should be given exclusively to news publishers regulated by bodies recognised by the Press Recognition Panel.
Why a definition of high quality journalism is essential
2.) The Terms of Reference make clear that the core task of the Review is to ‘examine the current and future market environment facing the press and high quality journalism in the UK’ and then to ‘report its findings and make recommendations on whether industry and/or government action might be taken to ensure a financially sustainable future for high quality journalism’. High quality journalism is thus explicitly distinct from the press (‘the press and high quality journalism’) and it is exclusively to high quality journalism that the Review’s recommendations must relate. The description ‘high quality’ being of itself unspecific and subjective, a definition is a practical necessity if the Review is to fulfil its remit.
3.) This is a matter of public morality. The Review is commissioned and paid for by government on behalf of UK citizens and taxpayers. Its tasks include considering the possibilities of creating new public subsidies and diverting private money by public agency. In these circumstances there must be absolute clarity about the possible beneficiaries, the degree to which they deliver a public good deserving of support and how they can be described as representative of high quality journalism or instrumental in its delivery.
4.) This obligation is all the heavier given that so many members of the Review panel are employed by or represent organisations that might benefit. If the Review leaves open even the possibility that through its recommendations panel members may be making a case for supporting their own interests or those of their employers it will risk the charge of corruption. It must be absolutely clear that the beneficiary will be journalism that is, so far as possible, objectively determined to be of genuinely high quality, and delivering a measured and tested public benefit.
Definitions that may be set aside as unsatisfactory
The DCMS ‘press industry’ definition
5.) The DCMS defines ‘the press industry’ for the purposes of the Review as those news publishers that are regulated by IPSO and IMPRESS, or which have their own standards code and complaints system. That this cannot also be accepted as a definition of high quality journalism is easily demonstrated.
6.) For 24 years until 2014 the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) had a standards code and processed complaints on behalf of almost the entire UK press, but it did not effectively uphold standards or provide effective assurance of journalistic quality. That was the agreed verdict in 2011-12 of the public, of victims of press abuse and of the prime minister, deputy prime minister, culture secretary and opposition leader. Some of the leading figures involved in the PCC, including Lord Black of Brentwood and Paul Dacre, also admitted that it had failed, and the Leveson Report declared: ‘. . . everyone agrees that it is no longer viable for the current self-regulatory structure to continue in its present form’. (p 1517)
7.) It is thus obvious that mere membership of a body that has a code and accepts complaints, as the PCC did and as IPSO does today on similar terms, cannot be a satisfactory test of the quality of journalism an organisation produces, especially in the context of possible public support. And to suggest that any publisher purporting, entirely on its own account, to have a code and to address complaints, might on those grounds qualify as ‘high quality’, would be to lower the bar even further.
8.) For the Review to equate ‘high quality journalism’ with ‘the press industry’ would also expose it to public ridicule and opprobrium, because the great majority of ordinary consumers of news (to whose interests the Review must, according to the Terms of Reference, give equal weight) associate the press, and particularly the national press, with low quality journalism. The evidence for this is so abundant as to be beyond dispute, and it is summarised below.
9.) Finally, it is self-evident that although some high quality journalism is produced by the press industry (as defined by DCMS), some is produced by broadcasters (whose role in relation to the Review is not clear from the documentation), by other kinds of organisations such as NGOs, and by individual bloggers.
Any that relies on readership, circulation or ‘clicks’
10.) Numbers of sales of printed copies or online hits can never be measures or even indicators of quality. If this were the case the journalism of the Sun would automatically have to be considered of far higher quality than the journalism of the Financial Times. Equally, almost all journalism that refers to the Kardashians (which is voluminous and very widely read) would be of higher quality than any journalism that refers to social welfare (which is not).
11.) If there is any relationship at all between quantity of readers and quality of journalism it is at best elusive, but it is certainly possible to demonstrate that where journalism is specifically designed to attract large readerships – so-called clickbait, where it appears online – it is often of low quality, which is to say that it is poorly sourced and verified, lacking in balance and context, and prurient or trivial.
12.) In one recent instance, on 2 September this year, the Mail on Sunday asserted that in preparation for her part in the television serial Bodyguard the actress Keeley Hawes had lost a stone by following a particular diet. The actress quickly tweeted that this was not the case. Barely a week later the Daily Express reported that the television personality Susanna Reid had lost a stone in two weeks by following a particular diet, a claim that was equally swiftly denied.
13.) On the face of it these are examples of low quality or simply bad journalism, yet because they were published by the Mail on Sunday and the Daily Express and because they mentioned popular and glamorous personalities and the ever-popular subject of dieting they almost certainly reached relatively large readerships. (In neither case was the story corrected or taken down.)
14.) Also in this context the Review must take account the steeply-falling sales of printed newspapers. The purchase of a paper every day or every week remains the strongest sign of consumer commitment and support – far more potent than clicking on free online content. All paid-for newspaper sales are in decline for a complex variety of reasons, but if the Review were equate current sales figures with quality in any way it would have to acknowledge that, by that measure, quality must be falling sharply.
Established news publishers (1) national
15.) It is obvious that any definition referring to existing titles and publishers individually or as a group would be unsuitable for a journalism environment that is, by common consent, changing relatively rapidly. That alone should rule out such an idea, but there are also specific and compelling reasons why most of the larger current news publishers should be excluded from any definition of high quality journalism.
16.) The first is this: nationally-distributed written journalism in Britain it is actively distrusted by a substantial majority of people. A year ago I reviewed in an academic paper all of the significant data that was available relating to public trust in journalism over the past twenty years and more – notably but not exclusively the tracking carried out by YouGov, polls by Ipsos MORI and the annual surveys in the UK by Eurobarometer. The first two have traditionally asked respondents whether they trust various categories of people, including journalists of various kinds, to tell the truth; Eurobarometer asks whether they trust various kinds of media. When the datasets were collated a consistent picture emerged for the years since 2011: only about one fifth of respondents, or 20 per cent, said they trusted national written (or printed) journalism or journalists. By way of comparison, half or more of respondents said they trusted broadcast journalists.
17.) No claim can be made that this is a general, international phenomenon: Eurobarometer’s figures show that the UK printed media is anomalous when it comes to trust, ranking 33rd out of 33 European countries for four years running. Nor is it possible, on the basis of published survey data, to say that it was ‘ever thus’, because the evidence from earlier years is too fragmentary and contradictory. My published research on this subject can be read here: https://www.byline.com/column/68/article/1975.
18.) It is evident that the British national press has a serious trust problem and it would be difficult if not impossible for the Review to make a case for any new kind of generalised public support for companies in an industry that is in such a state.
19.) That difficulty is compounded by the record of several relevant newspaper companies in relation to criminality and to unethical behaviour unjustified by public interest – neither of which is consistent with high quality journalism. The Leveson Report gave a picture of this up to late 2012. Since then It has emerged that phone hacking was rife at all of Reach’s national papers and was known about and covered up by executives and editors, while at News UK the Sun has been settling civil cases, at very high cost, in which hacking by its staff is alleged. We have also learned of the illegal conduct of Mahzer Mahmood, who worked for a series of News UK titles, though News UK has never apologised or sought to explain how he was allowed to operate in this way for many years. Besides this, the whistleblower John Ford has made very serious and wide-ranging allegations of illegal activity against the Sunday Times.
20.) In terms of unethical conduct there are far too many recent examples to cite here, but I will mention two that I have investigated which show not only grave failures of editorial and journalistic standards by national newspapers, but also the failure of IPSO effectively to uphold standards.
21.) The first is the case of Sam Allardyce and the Telegraph in 2016, in which the then England football manager was the target of a covert operation that led to allegations which cost him his job. Two years on, and with manifest reluctance, IPSO removed the last shred of credibility from the Telegraph’s story so that it could be seen as nothing more than an artful smear. The newspaper, however, was allowed to present IPSO’s ruling as a vindication and escaped any meaningful sanction. We may assume it will feel free to behave in the same way again in future. You may read more about this case here: https://inforrm.org/2018/09/03/sam-allardyce-the-telegraph-and-another-ipso-failure-brian-cathcart/.
22.) The second involves the Times, which last year published a front-page story under the headline ‘Christian girl forced into Muslim foster care’. Court documents now leave no doubt whatsoever that this was false not only in almost every detail but also in its general thrust. The Times asserted that the placement with a Muslim family was inappropriate but the record shows the child had previously spent most of her short life in the care of Muslim grandparents in a mainly Muslim country. In other words, a Muslim family was highly appropriate. Worse, the Times concealed from its readers the criminal record of the mother, on whom it relied as its principal source. Given that this story was certain to inflame religious tensions in the UK, its publication has to be considered worse than reckless. IPSO failed to engage at anything like the appropriate level and months later produced a ruling agains the paper relating only to an article published two days after the original false report. You may read about this case here: https://www.byline.com/column/68/article/2281.
23.) It might be argued that these are isolated cases at these two titles. Even if that were correct, which I do not accept, a news publisher’s ethics must be measured by the worst behaviour it tolerates and defends. That is the kind of test journalists apply to others: it must apply to them. Neither of these stories has been repudiated or withdrawn by the relevant papers; no apology has been offered; no journalist, so far as we know, has been disciplined even in the mildest way, and editors are silent. These, in other words, are the standards accepted by the current managements at the Times and Telegraph.
24.) Against this background, the Review must take note of the failure of most of the industry to accept the regulatory remedies to its problems of standards that were recommended by the Leveson Inquiry – a year-long, formal public scrutiny led by a very senior judge, in which the views of every interested party were heard and weighed – and subsequently endorsed by all parties in Parliament. News publishers that refuse to be regulated to standards acceptable to the public, even after they have been found by a public inquiry to have ‘wreaked havoc in the lives of innocent people’, are not fit to benefit from public support of any kind. (Executive Summary, p 4)
Established news publishers (2), regional and local
25.) Government rhetoric at the time of the announcement of the Review stressed the needs and problems of the local and regional press – understandably, since the above demonstrates that the needs and problems of the national press were and are unlikely to engage public sympathy.
26.) The Leveson Report praised the locals and regionals and in a general way exempted them from the many criticisms it levelled at the nationals. There is no evidence that they engaged in the sustained illegal and grossly unethical abuses of which most national titles were guilty. The chief problem for the Review, should it seek to direct public support of any kind to the local and regional press, is not that they may not merit support; it lies with the corporate owners.
27.) More than two-thirds of the industry is owned by three companies: Reach, Newsquest and Johnston Press. Before recommending support that might reach these companies in any way, the Review must show that it would be the public and not the shareholders that would benefit.
28.) In the past decade these companies have closed hundreds of titles and made redundant thousands of journalists while at the same time acquiring an ever-larger dominance in this shrinking business. In those years all three have generally made substantial profits. Newsquest is a subsidiary of a U.S. corporation: a large share of its profits are remitted abroad. Johnston Press is very heavily in debt: a large proportion of its profits go to debt servicing, while it has also seen fit to invest outside the industry, buying a national newspaper. Reach straddles the two industries and what proportion of profit is devoted to regional and local journalism is not clear.
29.) Before recommending any kind of public support, direct or indirect, that might pass to or through these companies, the Review will need to show that it will benefit journalism.
30.) It should not make the mistake made by the Local Democracy Reporter scheme, of diverting public (BBC) money into an operation that placed reporters in the newsrooms of these three companies without ensuring that formal measures were in place to prevent displacement of existing staff. In other words, there has been nothing to stop Reach, Newsquest and Johnston from using LDRs to fill space in their publications while dispensing with the services of existing members of staff.
31.) Equally, the current scheme to allow the local press discounts on business rates may appear helpful, but no measures have been taken to ensure the benefits are not principally to shareholders rather than to the public as readers of local papers.
The problem of the definer
32.) To define high quality journalism in the context of the Review is to choose which journalists will benefit from new public or publicly-directed funds. It would clearly be unacceptable for any government to make such a choice: that is the route to Pravda. Ministers must not be placed in a position where they can reward friendly journalists, publications or news organisations, or where they can place challenging journalism at a financial disadvantage. Even the perception that such abuse was possible would severely damage public trust both in our politics and our journalism and would negate any benefit that the Review may seek to deliver.
33.) Not only is it unacceptable for the choice to be made by government; it would also be unacceptable if the choice were made by any individual or body that was appointed and chosen by government, or even by cross-party agreement in Parliament. In the interests of journalism, of the public and of democracy, no trace of political influence can be tolerated. It follows that the Review Chair and Panel are not suitable for this task.
34.) Further, it would be unacceptable if the choice were made by news publishers themselves, or by the press industry as defined by DCMS. To permit any industry to be the judge of its own quality would be to invite a lowering of standards, and when public or publicly-directed money may be involved it would clearly be corrupt and contrary to the interests of the public. Representatives or senior members of the industry are equally unsuited to the task on the grounds that they have vested interests different from, and potentially at odds with, those of the public. On these grounds too, many members of the Panel are disqualified.
35.) The Panel is thus charged with a task – defining high quality journalism – which it would be ethically and morally wrong for it to carry out. This is a problem created by poor government thinking, but it is not intractable.
A solution: how to define high quality journalism
36.) The solution is that the Review can recommend transferring the task to others who do not suffer its handicaps – that is to say, a qualified body that is independently appointed and transparently free of political influence. A definition of high quality journalism supplied by such a body would be ethically and morally defensible and capable of commanding public respect and acceptance.
37.) Such a body exists: the Press Recognition Panel (PRP). It is qualified; it is independent of political influence; it is independent of the press industry; it is charged with acting in the interests of the public. The Review should recommend that the PRP be given responsibility for determining the meaning of the term high quality journalism for the purposes of the distribution of any future public support or subsidy, direct or indirect. The PRP can do this by applying its recognition criteria.
Supporting high quality journalism identified by its regulation
38.) This is the key to meeting the challenges presented by the Terms of Reference not only in terms of identification, but also of the direction and management of any support that may be forthcoming as a result of the Review’s efforts.
39.) The recognition criteria ensure that recognised regulators regulate effectively as well as independently. That means that codes are upheld and where serious or systemic problems occur they are actively investigated and, if necessary, sanctions are imposed. Effective regulation of this kind does not wait for complaints, nor does it pick and choose among complainants; it is concerned about whether a code has been breached and if so how to prevent recurrence. In short, it upholds standards and it does so in a manner that was recommended by a judge (Sir Brian Leveson) at a year-long public inquiry, whose criteria were subsequently endorsed, in Royal Charter form, by every party in Parliament.
40.) In repeated opinion polls the public has expressed support for this form of regulation. See for example https://www.impress.press/news/yougov-poll.html. It follows that it is likely that the public will accept a future distribution of public or publicly-directed support for high quality journalism to individuals and bodies regulated to these standards.
41.) Most of the press industry has refused to participate in recognised regulation, giving the explanation that it regards this as ‘state-backed’. The Review should examine the detail of the Charter: government and politicians are painstakingly excluded from influence. Further, it must be assumed that such objections in principle to state backing no longer apply, since News Media Association members and the Guardian are supporters of the Review, which is considering state financial backing of journalism.
43.) This submission has examined that part of the Review’s task which relates to the direction of any public or publicly-directed support for high quality journalism that may be forthcoming. It concludes on ethical, moral and practical grounds that the Review should recommend that any such support should be delivered exclusively to those news publishers participating in regulation recognised by the PRP as meeting the standards set out in the Royal Charter on press self-regulation.