How Scotland can steal a march on the UK on democracy and press freedom – John McLellan

A stint munching marsupials’ unmentionables on I’m a Celebrity is not what most people would consider to be ideal experience for ministerial office, but it would be unfair to pre-judge how Nadine Dorries MP will perform as the new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, seen sitting between Scottish Secretary Alister Jack and Attorney General Suella Braverman, attend the first post-reshuffle Cabinet meeting in Downing Street last week (Picture: Jeremy Selwyn/WPA pool/Getty Images)

The reaction across British media circles to the highly regarded Oliver Dowden’s switch to Conservative Party co-chair was one of what diplomats call disappointment, tempered with the continued presence of the highly experienced and, outside the BBC anyway, well-disposed John Whittingdale. But the next day, “Whitto” was shown the door.

Ms Dorries may turn out to be the best minister the department has had, but she must now get to grips quickly with wide-ranging and fiendishly complex challenges to the way we consume and share information, and which therefore cut to the very heart of the assumptions on which modern democracy is based.

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Ministers come and go, and to an extent the driving force in any department are the senior civil servants, but strong policy-making still relies on ministers having a firm grasp of their brief, and a fast-spinning merry-go-round makes that far harder to achieve when the world they must legislate for is spinning even faster.

Labour lost power in 2010, the same year as Instagram was founded, when WhatsApp was a year old, and Tik Tok was still six years away. In 11 years there have been ten Conservative culture and media ministers with an average stint of about a year, the longest-serving being the first, Jeremy Hunt, who stayed for two years and four months. In this time Amazon (founded 1994), Google (1998) and Facebook (2004) have become trillion-dollar companies, joining the grand old timers Microsoft (1975) and Apple (1976). Tik Tok has gone from zero to $250 billion in just five years.

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Before Mr Dowden, Nicky Morgan was highly rated by the civil servants for the speed and firmness of her grip, so Ms Dorries has tough acts to follow and the dismissal of Mr Whittingdale, in and around the department since 2010, mostly as a junior minister, deprives her of significant institutional knowledge and continuity.

Ms Dorries might have thought her priority is BBC reform, but she must manage a plethora of vital media consultations like high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) advertising, alcohol marketing and the Online Safety Bill, plus the massive job of giving the new Digital Markets Unit the legislative teeth it needs to regulate the business landscape now dominated by US media companies.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with foreign ownership, but the billions they make is primarily from advertising and the vast majority of the UK’s £16.5bn digital advertising market in 2020 has gone abroad.

Total UK advertising expenditure in 2020 was £23.4bn, which means all UK media companies are fighting over less than a third of the market, of which TV takes approximately 16 per cent. Everyone else, including the publishers of The Scotsman, are scrabbling over the remainder.

The problem, as the 2019 review by Dame Frances Cairncross demonstrated, is the production of original, trusted news relies heavily on non-broadcast news providers, something the likes of Google and Facebook recognise with their news support schemes.

Such tinkering round the edges might help stave off statutory intervention but as yet makes little difference to the long-term sustainability of news publishing on which communities large and small rely to keep them properly informed about decisions which directly affect their lives.

In a speech to the fellows of the Public Relations and Communications Association this week, veteran press freedom campaigner Lord Guy Black, now the Telegraph Media Group’s deputy chair, pointed out that in the 17 years since Facebook was launched there has been no substantial legislation to deal with digital competition and it took so long to pass the 2003 Communications Act which established the government media regulator Ofcom that it doesn’t mention the internet.

“Unless publishers are commercially successful they will never have the resources to support investigative reporting, foreign news, first-class comment, and especially local news which is the lifeblood of all our communities. Our free society is at risk,” he said.

Bemoaning the length of time taken to pass legislation, he added: “Consultation, which gives the appearance of action without having actually to introduce legislation, has become a grim hallmark of the media landscape. Parliament’s business managers… need to grasp that before history damns them with those most chilling words: ‘too late.’”

To the list of consultations and studies into media survival ─ Cairncross in 2019, Professor Jason Furman’s report the same year and the 2020 Competitions & Markets Authority online platforms and digital advertising market study ─ will shortly be added the work of the Scottish government’s public-interest journalism working group, which signed off its report for submission to ministers this week.

It was only one paragraph, so readers will be forgiven for missing it, but the report and the importance of independent quality journalism was recognised in this month’s Programme for Government which pledged to “ensure the long-term sustainability and resilience of public interest journalism in Scotland”.

As a working-group member, it would be wrong of me to jump the gun and reveal any recommendations, but the Scottish government’s promise to “listen and respond to the recommendations… to ensure journalism in Scotland remains transparent and strong, as a key element of Scottish democracy" gives hope that something can be done in Scotland at a greater pace than has so far been demonstrated by the UK government.

The sustainability of a strong news publishing sector is not about protecting vested interests but creating markets and systems in which quality journalism is valued and democratic scrutiny enhanced through publications and platforms people want to read, and enabling new and diverse organisations to thrive. The best will survive and some might not, but with swift action everyone will have a fighting chance.

John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society

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