Conservative and Labour set out stalls for supporting news media

Conservative and Labour set out stalls for supporting news media
Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer (left) and Shadow Culture Secretary Thangam Debbonaire (right)

To celebrate a week-long campaign to support journalism, Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer and Shadow Culture Secretary Thangam Debbonaire both expressed, in separate op-eds, their respective parties’ vision for supporting news media.

The Journalism Matters campaign, run by the News Media Association (NMA), aims to highlight the vital role news media journalism plays in supporting democratic society.

Both Frazer and Debbonaire noted how members of the press have come under attack around the world in recent years, including with the deaths of journalists covering the war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas war that broke out earlier this month.

‘Power to local’

Frazer said she was proud of the “exceptional journalism” in the UK and “the 900 news titles that make up our flourishing media scene,” including local newspapers and their staff, which she called “the lifeblood” of the industry.

She loosely derided social media companies, calling them “awash with individuals who are happy to exchange misinformation for influence.”

“When those channels, for better or worse, give out megaphones to individuals indiscriminately, our media and broadcasters become one of the few places where people can consistently find quality reporting, grounded in facts,” she continued.

Debbonaire, meanwhile, wrote of the dire need to better support local news publishers. “Under successive Conservative governments, there are now probably fewer local newspapers than at any time since the 18th century,” she wrote. “Although local media’s digital audiences have seen strong growth, more than 320 print local titles closed between 2009 and 2019.

“That risks local and regional administrations going without the scrutiny local people deserve. Neglected, hollowed-out local services from health, to housing and the police going unchecked. Keir Starmer has set out Labour’s plan to give more power to local communities. That must be coupled with strengthened regional and local news media holding those at every level of power to account.”

For his part, NMA CEO Owen Meredith teased new data, to be released later this week, that is “expected to show huge audiences for local news media,” arguing we must “ensure that supply matches demand.”

In an opinion piece for The Media Leader to be published tomorrow, NMA vice-chair Danny Cammiade will argue that advertisers are missing out on “untapped potential” of local news audiences.

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‘Harmful possibilities of artificial intelligence’

Among Meredith’s chief concerns is how AI will impact newsrooms as well as the spread of disinformation.

While admitting AI can offer journalists opportunities to investigate and spend more time in the field through automating “less important tasks,” he worried that elections next year and beyond “could be influenced by AI-generated false information.”

Frazer highlighted the UK Government’s hosting of the Global AI Summit next month as a way the Government is being proactive about protecting media organisations from “some of the more harmful possibilities of artificial intelligence.”

Meredith is pushing for the development of “robust tools” that can enable publishers to fully protect their intellectual property from being exploited by third parties, like generative AI developers.

“Otherwise,” he predicted, “the exploitation of UK content creators by powerful tech companies will accelerate dramatically, causing untold damage to our creative economy.”

Debbonaire was sympathetic. “Labour has called for the Government to require platforms to pay newspapers for their content,” she said. “If negotiations fail, we believe an independent arbitrator would set a fair price. Newspapers and publishers should also have greater control of their data and content.”

News publishers have decried the stealing of their IP by generative AI companies this year. At a Labour Party Conference panel earlier this month, Guardian News and Media’s director of public policy Matt Rogerson called it, “the greatest heist of intellectual property the world has ever seen.”

‘The greatest heist of IP the world has ever seen’: publishers push for AI regulation

‘Don’t weaken the Media Bill’

Legislation is currently making its way through Parliament to address Big Tech’s dominance over digital publishing. The draft Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill includes empowering the Digital Markets Unit with legal powers to level the playing field between publishers and tech giants, according to Meredith.

The bill will also repeal Section 40, which Lucy Frazer called an “arcane rule which could threaten media freedom and risk financial ruin to any publisher.”

Section 40, which has never been properly implemented, was drawn up in 2013 following the Leveson Inquiry and would force publishers to pay the costs of people who sue them, even if the publisher wins the suit.

At present the bill maintains high cross-party support.

“It is vital for the success of the new regime that nothing is done to weaken the Bill as it passes through Parliament,” Meredith pleaded.

Apart from the Media Bill, Both Frazer and Debbonaire offered support for ending strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), which are often filed by powerful individuals or companies against journalists seeking to quiet them through the threat of legal expenses.

The current government has launched a new taskforce to explore how to end the practice, which Debbonaire said she welcomes and will be “pushing them on.”

“We cannot let our legal system be abused,” she said. “Journalists must be able to ask legitimate questions. […] Freedom to scrutinise, freedom to investigate, and freedom to speak truth to power should not be for sale.”

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