The Cairncross Review on restoring trust in an age of fake news

Michela Palese, former Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 12th February 2019

The need to curb the unregulated power of tech giants is finally being recognised in the sphere of journalism and online information as well.

In a report published today, the Cairncross Review recommended that online platforms should be made to improve trust in the news they host through a ‘news quality obligation, and that this should be overseen by a regulator.

The government launched the Review in February 2018 and tasked it with looking into the future sustainability of high-quality national and local newspapers in the UK; the role and impact of digital search engines and social media platforms; and the role of digital advertising. Dame Frances Cairncross – a former journalist – was appointed as chair in March 2018.

The Review found that half of UK adults ‘worry about “fake news” or disinformation. A quarter do not know how to verify sources of information they find online. So users need to acquire the right skills to spot fake news, and online platforms must identify and quickly remove the deliberate spread of fake news on their services.’

One of the Review’s main areas of focus was the ‘the uneven balance of power’ between news publishers and online platforms that distribute content.

It found – unsurprisingly – that Google and Facebook have ‘captured’ most of online advertising revenue. As we know, this has had significant consequences for news publishers and for the quality of information available to ordinary citizens, especially with regards to public interest news, such as reporting on local democracy. For example, Robert Halfon MP highlighted last week how some elderly people are so starved for news that they are turning to their MP for information on local issues.

In this regard, the Review argued that more could be done to ensure the sustainability of the journalism industry. It suggested that the Government should consider options such as direct funding for local news and tax reliefs for public interest journalism.

The Review also recommended that a ‘new Institute for Public Interest News should focus on the future of local and regional press and oversee a new innovation fund’. Such measures could improve the information available to voters.

The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Jeremy Wright, welcomed the report and said:

‘A healthy democracy needs high quality journalism to thrive and this report sets out the challenges to putting our news media on a stronger and more sustainable footing, in the face of changing technology and rising disinformation.’

The findings of the Cairncross Review and the minister’s response are a welcome reminder of the importance of good-quality information – especially on local, ‘ordinary’ issues – for the health of our democracy. As we highlighted in our It’s Good to Talk report in 2016, information is fundamental to an engaged, empowered and active citizenry.

Further, the Cairncross Review’s findings show that – despite tech platforms’ attempts to strengthen local journalism by providing training to local reporters or highlighting local news stories on their platforms – their actions alone have proven insufficient. This is why some regulation and government intervention are called for as a way of ensuring that the tech platforms have a news quality obligation, and of guaranteeing the future of high-quality journalism that serves the public good.

In our latest report on political campaign regulation, we similarly agreed that it would be unwise to leave the regulation of online campaigning to private tech companies alone and called for some regulation of the online sphere. We argued that tech platforms should not be able, as private companies, to decide when and how to act on matters that affect all citizens – indeed, any response to problems such as disinformation/fake news needs to have the best interests of the democratic community as a whole, not corporate profit or private interests, at its heart.

Read about our report on political campaign regulation

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