The House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee’s report, Breaking News? The Future of UK Journalism, considered the impact of digital technologies on journalism in the UK.

The committee argued the industry had changed radically over the previous 20 years. Figures included in the report indicated that the circulation of both regional and national newspapers had fallen dramatically during this period. At the same time, the committee noted that online journalism had grown.

The committee concluded that these changes offered opportunities for UK journalism. It also argued that, while the market for news had changed, journalism remained an essential component in maintaining a healthy democracy.

Cairncross Review

The committee referred to several previously published reports on the future of UK journalism, including the review conducted by Dame Frances Cairncross.

The Cairncross Review: a Sustainable Future for Journalism was commissioned by the Government and published in 2019. It made several recommendations, including that the Government should take action to improve the way in which the market for online advertising was regulated. The review also recommended that the Government implement a digital literacy strategy to combat the spread of so-called ‘fake news’.

The Government published its response to the Cairncross review in January 2020, outlining actions it intended to take following the review’s recommendations. This included the establishment of a code of conduct concerning the relationship between news publishers and online platforms. The Government also said it remained committed to establishing a digital literacy strategy. The Government had originally announced its intention to publish such a strategy in its April 2019 online harms white paper. However, the Government declined to accept Dame Frances’s recommendation to establish an institute for public interest news.

Further information on the review and the Government’s response is provided in the House of Lords Library briefing, Cairncross Review: A Sustainable Future for Journalism.

Committee recommendations

The committee made several recommendations in its report, including:

  • The Government should ensure the online advertising market is regulated effectively. The committee argued there was currently an imbalance of power between online platforms and publishers. It said this had resulted in a “dysfunctional market”.
  • The Government should establish the Digital Markets Unit on a statutory basis. This body would be responsible for regulating the digital market.
  • The role of Ofcom should be expanded to include regulation of online news content published by UK public service broadcasters. Currently, Ofcom’s broadcasting code does not apply to online content. The committee also recommended that Ofcom should monitor the accuracy of social media posts by journalists working for these broadcasters.
  • The Government should ensure that efforts to improve media literacy were coordinated more effectively. The committee argued that responsibility for coordinating media literacy efforts should be included in the remit of an existing regulator, such as Ofcom.
  • The Government should adapt the rules for apprenticeships supported through the apprenticeship levy so that people looking to enter journalism receive better support.
  • That the journalism industry draw-up a diversity charter to address the “inequalities of opportunity”. For example, this should address the scarcity of paid internships.
  • The Government should review the legislation banning the use of recording devices in court. This would enable journalists to improve the reporting of court proceedings.

How has the Government responded?

The Government published its response to the committee’s report in March 2021. It welcomed the committee’s report and said that it was committed to supporting the role of UK journalism and maintaining a free media.

In response to the committee’s specific recommendations, the Government said:

  • The process for establishing the Digital Markets Unit would begin in April 2021. It also said that it would hold a public consultation in 2021 on the role of the Digital Markets Unit and that the unit would be placed on a statutory footing as soon as parliamentary time allowed. The unit was subsequently established on 7 April 2021. Legislation to give the unit statutory powers has yet to be introduced.
  • It would introduce a new code of conduct governing the relationship between online platforms and the businesses that depend on them, such as news organisations. This code would be overseen by the Digital Markets Unit.
  • It was undertaking a review of public service broadcasting. It said this review would consider whether the way public service broadcasters are regulated should be adapted to reflect changing technology and audience habits.
  • It planned to publish a media literacy strategy—as recommended by the Cairncross Review—in spring 2021. The Government said that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport was also taking broader action to coordinate efforts to improve media literacy in the UK. The Government subsequently published its online media literacy strategy in July 2021. It has said that the objective of this strategy would be to coordinate media literacy activity over the next three years.
  • It recognised the existing challenges for the sector on the establishment of journalism apprenticeships schemes. It said it was testing different approaches for supporting apprenticeships in this and similar sectors. This would include working with apprenticeship training agencies to support apprentices working in sectors with nonstandard working patterns.
  • It did not have plans to alter the current rules concerning recording court proceedings.

Subsequent Government announcements

Since the publication of the Government’s response, the Government has published information on a number of the matters referred to in the committee’s report.

For example, in March 2021, the Government published a National Action Plan for the Safety of Journalists. The plan aims to improve understanding of the nature and extent of threats to the safety of journalists, and to help platforms prevent online abuse.

In June 2021, the Government announced its intention to publish a broadcasting white paper in the autumn. In July 2021, it published a consultation on the future ownership of Channel 4. Oliver Dowden, the then Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, described the consultation’s proposals as forming part of the Government’s “wider strategic review” of public service broadcasting. The consultation closed on 14 September 2021.

Also in July 2021, the Government published a consultation on its proposals for regulating competition in digital markets. Announcing the consultation, Mr Dowden said that the new regime would “proactively shape the behaviour of the most powerful tech firms and protect those who rely on them”. The consultation proposed that this new regime would be overseen by the Digital Markets Unit. The consultation closed on 1 October 2021.

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