A UK governmental review into threats to the press, principally from the internet, has led to calls for tech giants to pay for news content that appears on their platforms.
The Cairncross review asked for submissions on the matter earlier this month and has so far received them from the News Media Association, press regulators IPSO and IMPRESS, and the National Union of Journalists. The NMA one is headed “NMA Calls For Licence Fee Agreement With Tech Giants”.
“A fair and equitable content licence fee agreement would ensure that news media publishers are appropriately rewarded for the use of their content by the tech giants, safeguarding the future of independent journalism which underpins our democracy,” opened the NMA press release.
“The primary focus of concern today is the loss of advertising revenues which have previously sustained quality national and local journalism and are now flowing to the global search engines and social media companies who make no meaningful contribution to the cost of producing the original content from which they so richly benefit.”
On one hand this smacks of special pleading by an industry that has found its business model rendered obsolete within a generation. But on the other there are good arguments that the press should receive special treatment given their democratic role in holding power to account and informing the population. This is also a good time to be trying to extract money from tech giants, following the approval of tough new digital copyright rules by the EU.
Given the virtual impossibility of tracking every news link published on every digital platform, the plan seems to be to come up with some kind of arbitrary license fee, essentially a special tax, and impose it on any tech company that is perceived to be profiting from news stories in any way. This cash would then be handed over to news media organisations according to a formula yet to be determined.
One of the potential variables for determining how much of a kick-back a given title would get could be the highly subjective concept of ‘quality. The NUJ and the regulators all dwell on this a fair bit but seem to all have their own definitions of quality.
“The union believes that the best definition of what constitutes ‘high quality journalism’ is work that complies with the NUJ’s long-established ethical code of conduct and the NUJ’s submission to the review highlights that NUJ members work hard to produce quality content for websites and newspapers in extremely challenging circumstances,” said the full stop-averse NUJ.
“Another problem with the move towards accessing our news online is the proliferation of fake news, often disseminated through social media,” said IPSO. “Without a thriving press, there’s little antidote to online disinformation – and the effect this might have on the public’s ability to participate meaningfully in society should be of concern to us all.”
IMPRESS wants the UK government to “create a new legal identity – ‘Public Interest News’ – for the publishers of high-quality journalism. This identity would be distinct from charitable status, so that publishers could still publish political news and comment, but it would have some of the benefits of charitable status.”
By definition a free press should be unshackled by external quality control. The European Commission has recently indicated it would like to regulate newspapers to prevent them criticising it and campaigning organisations such as Hacked Off (which supports IMPRESS, incidentally), want to restrict the press according to their own systems of weights and measures.
But that doesn’t mean we should ignore this issue. Google and Facebook account for a very high proportion of all ad spend in most places they operate and a lot of the traffic they monetise is driven by content produced by professional journalists. Even alternatives to mainstream media are dependent on tech platforms such as YouTube and Twitter. While this internet tax has many flaws it is at least a reminder to the tech giants that if they don’t do more to ensure a healthy and diverse news media environment, governments might take matters into their own hands.