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Publishers and the Next Prime Minister

The new prime minister will have their hands full, but, says Owen Meredith, CEO of the News Media Association, there are a number of media-related issues which need urgent attention.

By Owen Meredith

Publishers and the Next Prime Minister

By the time this article is published, we will know the final two candidates in the race to replace Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party – and prime minister (there’s an outside chance that as you read this, a new PM is already in post, if as Boris Johnson suggested at his latest and most likely last PMQs outing, the parliamentary party anoints its new leader without a ballot of 200 thousand-odd members).

Whatever the outcome, publishers across the press – from local, regional, and national news media who we represent at the NMA, to colleagues at the PPA in specialist business and consumer media, and across the wider media community – there are some really pressing issues that should be close to the top of a new PM’s in tray.

First, the Online Safety Bill, which suffered a last-minute delay as the House of Commons ran out of time before the summer recess. The new prime minister may want to put their own stamp on the bill, but with cross-party consensus on the need for action, I would expect the bill to proceed this autumn, with House of Lords debate in September or October. This crucial piece of legislation aims “to make the UK the safest place in the world to go online” but has hit some challenges in the detail, especially as battles range over free speech. An important protection agreed by the House of Commons at report stage is that content from “recognised news publishers” has a special status and the largest social media platforms must not arbitrarily remove it, without due notice and right of appeal for the publisher. These protections are vital for free speech and to ensure consumers have access to trustworthy and reliable sources of news and information online.

Second, and most pressing, is the need for digital competition legislation to address the flip side of the same digital coin and give the Digital Markets Unit (established in shadow form within the CMA) the statutory powers it needs to do its job. Big tech platforms have enjoyed near monopoly power for too long, and report after report has demonstrated how that is damaging for consumers, businesses and publishers alike. This new regulator will help level the playing field between publishers and platforms and deliver value (and cash) back to businesses and consumers. As we face an autumn of sustained inflationary pressure, an early win for the new prime minister would be to bring this legislation forward, deliver a more competitive digital economy and put money back in voters’ pockets.

Ensuring a sustainable future

Third, there is a real and present threat facing the future sustainability of local publishers – not least as the price of newsprint and energy squeezes profitability of print newspapers. These publishers invest in unique local journalism, reporting on the ground in communities across the length and breadth of this country. It is local publishers who invest heavily in journalists who scrutinise local councils, report on court proceedings and hold the powerful to account; while bringing communities together and championing their locality.

The new prime minister must act to ensure local media has a sustainable long-term future, by delivering against the challenges set out in the Cairncross Review, including levelling the playing field with the tech platforms through the Digital Competition Bill. Government has a role to play in supporting local news media to transition to truly sustainable digital-first business models. At the NMA, we’ve set out our ideas of how this could be done, most recently to the DCMS Select Committee inquiry on the sustainability of local journalism: including tax credits for employing journalists; more effective deployment of government advertising spend; and extending business rate relief.

And while a new PM will want to recast the government in their own image, the Conservative Party – with its 80-seat majority – was elected on a manifesto to which all Tory MPs subscribed. Central elements of that manifesto were laid out in the Queen’s Speech just a few months ago in May, and parliament has a job to do in getting on with passing these laws.

The government has published its Bill of Rights which provides an opportunity to reassert the importance of freedom of speech in law and roll back the worrying creep towards secrecy. However, government must ensure that other misguided provisions in the bill do not undermine these efforts.

And vital for all publishers are the measures planned for the Media Bill. While the headline of this bill – the privatisation of Channel 4 – was not in the manifesto and may drop away, other measures in the bill will bring long-overdue updates to broadcast law for TV and radio, including on areas such as the prominence of public service broadcasters on connected devices, and delivering on the 2019 Conservative manifesto commitment “to support free speech, … [by] repeal[ing] section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 201[3]”. This removes a dangerous piece of legislation from the statute book that, if enacted, would subject publishers to crippling damages and force them to pay both sides’ costs, win or lose. A provision fatal to a free and plural press in this country.

So, with a new PM in place by September 5 at the latest, publishers should work together across the industry to ensure a unified voice and a vibrant lobby to ensure these important legislative steps are taken forward.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.