John McLellan: Bring on review into news media industry

John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society. Picture: Contributed
John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society. Picture: Contributed
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Prime Minister Theresa May has repeated her commitment to find ways of creating a “fair playing field” for regional and local publishers struggling to compete with Google and Facebook for digital advertising.

A UK government review of the news media industry begins next month and she told a meeting of the Johnston Press editorial board that a different definition of the tech giants may be needed to address arguments about their responsibilities.

She said: “Maybe there is actually a third category, something else that best describes what they do that starts to find some way in terms of looking at their liability rather than them just being able to say: ‘Well, it’s nothing to do with us’.”

It’s unlikely a new definition will be enough to change the way they operate and a meaningful consequence is what’s needed, but at least the problem is recognised at the highest level.

The so-called Duopoloy now controls over a quarter of all global advertising and the threat is not just to news publishers but to the complex web of creative and booking agencies as the tech giants increasingly take those services in house. Agencies have fought tenaciously over the years to prevent publishers dealing directly with major advertisers, but now clients can access Google’s 44 per cent of the world’s digital advertising market place without going through middle-men.

As Silicon Valley’s Dark Star sucks more commercial life towards it, Mrs May’s review can’t come quick enough.

- Scottish Law Commission chairman Lord Pentland has written a well-timed article to promote the widely-welcomed reforms proposed in his Defamation Bill.

Writing in The Journal of the Law Society of Scotland, Lord Pentland said: “The law has become increasingly antiquated, inaccessible and difficult to advise on.”

The Bill introduces a serious harm test to weed out frivolous claims and to bring legislation into line with English law, and new approaches to digital publication and social media.

“Our proposals have the potential to reinvigorate this area of the law… Practitioners and the public will no longer have to search for the law across a complex landscape of elderly and sometimes inconsistent case law and scattered statutory provisions,” he wrote.

Producing the Bill and accompanying report has involved two consultation processes, one prior to the production of the draft legislation and another to test subsequent reaction, and the final version was presented to justice minister Michael Matheson in December.

It has been passed to junior minster Annabelle Ewing for consideration and an initial government response is expected in March. The Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee, chaired by Conservative MSP Margaret Mitchell is taking a keen interest and if the Bill does not make it into the Government’s legislative programme there is a strong chance it could be adopted as a committee bill.

- England’s serious harm test did not prevent Conservative MP Ben Bradley apologising to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who had threatened to sue for a tweet alleging he has sold secrets to Communist Czechoslovakia. Bradley has agreed to pay costs and make a donation to charity. Corbyn did not sell information but whether making such an allegation seriously damaged his reputation is another thing.

As columnist Katie Hopkins found to her cost, continuing to argue about an offending Tweet can be ruinous, well over £100,000 in her case for not saying sorry to blogger Jack Monroe.

So too has Joanna Cherry MP been threatening to sue the Daily Record over a feature which challenged her claim that Scottish students were not saddled with debts because of the SNP’s no tuition fees policy. The QC says the piece infers she is a liar, but the cases lost by ex-STV director Alistair Moffat against the West Highland Free Press, ex-Socialist MSP Frances Curran against the Sunday Mail, and the late journalist Angus Macleod against the Sunday Herald all suggest a thicker skin might be a better option.

- The sale of family-owned CN group in Cumbria to The Herald owner Newsquest is the latest news of consolidation by former Scotsman general manager Henry Faure-Walker, but actually brings one title back into a fold it left over 30 years ago.

The North-West Evening Mail in Barrow-in-Furness was once owned by Westminster Press which in 1996 became Newsquest when WP was sold by parent company Pearson to US news publisher Gannet.

But around ten years previously WP had sold the Evening Mail to entrepreneur and former Maxwell executive Philip Davies for around £200,000 because with one of the last full hot-metal operations in the UK, WP was reluctant to invest in Barrow and hived off the business from its successful Westmorland Gazette operation in Kendal.

Three years later and the transformation of the business with computer setting and a second-hand web offset press, Davies sold the business to CN for around £3 million.

The acquisition gives Newsquest a spread of titles across the north of England stretching from Carlisle and Hexham down the Pennines to Kendal, York, Darlington, Bradford and Bolton and a press operation from the newly purchased North Wales News in Deeside.

It also has a press operation from the newly purchased North Wales News in Deeside and now CN’s production centre in Carlisle.

- John McLellan is director of the Scottish Newspaper Society