Cairncross Review: a blueprint for tackling tensions between platforms and publishers?

An independent review into the state of the UK press, chaired by former journalist Dame Frances Cairncross, calls for better regulation of tech giants.

by Simone Flueckiger | February 12, 2019

Tasked by Government with assessing the sustainability of quality journalism in the United Kingdom, the review puts forward a set of recommendations to help secure the industry’s future, focusing on issues surrounding tech platforms, digital advertising, public interest journalism, and media literacy.

As a way to address Facebook and Google’s dominant market position, the report called for the establishment of new codes of conduct between tech platforms and news publishers to govern commercial arrangements and encourage a more balanced relationship between the parties, with oversight from a regulator.


“Platforms’ algorithms are a critical part of their infrastructure and a key source of their comparative advantage. So it would be unreasonable to expect them to share full specifications,” the report said.

“But equally, some warning of upcoming changes, and further information on the underlying principles, could go a long way to help publishers build sustainable strategies for reaching readers online, to ensure that as many people as possible find their content.”

It also highlighted the difference between platforms and content creators, deciding to disregard a proposal which suggested to place the same legal responsibility on platforms as on news publishers, including legal liability for publishing false stories.

“If platforms were liable for all content on their services, they would be forced to vet everything they, or users, uploaded, placing strict constraints on what could be shared or surfaced. The overall effect might well be to reduce the online availability of news, and to harm users (who clearly value the online platforms’ aggregation services). In other words, this proposal goes too far,” the report read.

Instead, it called on the government to “place an obligation on the larger online platforms to improve how their users understand the origin of an article of news and the trustworthiness of its source, thereby helping readers identify what “good” or “quality” news looks like.”

These initiatives should be placed under regulatory supervision, with the report arguing that the task was too important to leave entirely to the judgment of commercial entities.

“The proposals I have put forward have the potential to improve the outlook for high quality journalism,” Cairncross, will be attending this year’s World News Media Congress, taking place 1 to 3 June in Glasgow, said.

“They are designed to encourage new models to emerge, with the help of innovation not just in technology but in business systems and journalistic techniques.”

Other key recommendations put forward in the report include:

1. A VAT exemption for online news publications

“The application of VAT currently forces publishers which offer subscriptions to both a digital and a physical product with the same content to apportion value between the two. Removing it might make digital subscriptions cheaper, or might increase their profitability to publishers. It might also encourage innovation in content or business models.”

2. The launch of a publicly funded Institute for Public Interest News with the aim of amplifying efforts to ensure the sustainability of public interest journalism.

“The transformation of the market for advertising, and the easy availability of free online news have created a particular public-policy concern. Together, they have disrupted the streams of revenue that not only made publishing profitable, but also financed the collection and dissemination of what this Review has defined as public-interest news: news that helps to underpin democracy at national and local levels.

“This disruption threatens the provision of public-interest news. Yet it is essential to our democracy that such news is widely reported and has wide reach.”

3. Working with Ofcom, the government should develop a media literacy strategy to identify gaps in provision and opportunities for more collaborative working.

“People need the skills to navigate the variety of news, to understand more about why they see what appears on the sites they view. They also need to know how to check the reliability and accuracy of content, and how to distinguish factual content from opinion.”

The full report can be accessed here.

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