Lord Black Calls For Action to Ensure Sustainability of Free Media

Lord Black of Brentwood has warned something must be done to ensure the viability of trusted news media in the face of the unregulated duopoly which does not invest in news but reaps commercial benefits from news media publishers’ content.

Lord Black, chairman of the News Media Association’s legal, policy and regulatory affairs committee, was speaking in a House of Lords the debate last week on the role played by social media and online platforms as news and content publishers moved by Baroness Kidron.    

He said: “It is surely the responsibility of all those involved in regulation and lawmaking both to ensure the financial sustainability and independence of free media producing real news in this country and to tackle the issues of liability for illegal content, enforcing copyright and defamation and ensuring the fitness and transparency of the advertising supply ‚Äčchain that will ensure that real, verified news continues to thrive as part of a diverse and vigorous digital environment.”

Lord Black welcomed the digital revolution and the way news and information had become globally available but cautioned that news providers who produced content that online platforms used were not being fairly rewarded.

He said: “The giants that have powered this – Google and Facebook – are barely two decades old. They started off, as the noble Baroness said, as tech companies and, quite rightly in my view, were able to undertake the early exploration of the potential of the internet and the digital world largely free of regulation or legal restraint. But the world has changed fundamentally in those 20 years and these companies have in effect become public utilities.

“As we heard just now, Facebook’s active users now number over a quarter of the world’s population. For the commercial media, and the existence of an independent press, that has profound consequences because of the migration in advertising spend.

“As the noble Baroness also pointed to earlier, ad revenues have shifted dramatically online. It is estimated that, by 2020, more than 70 per cent of all advertising spend will be with just Google and Facebook, with programmatic advertising fuelling fake news sites and other harmful content.”

Highlighting the importance of a free press as a counter to fake news and the media’s significant investment in original news content Lord Black continued: “Ironically, the best antidote to the problems we have encountered with fake news is a free and independent media, which must remain the custodian of democratic debate and scrutiny. News media publishers therefore have a vital role to play in online content creation – indeed they are already the biggest investors in it.

“Nearly 60 per cent of investment in UK original news content comes from newsbrands, and publishers now invest at least £100 million in digital services. But the companies benefiting from that investment are of course the global tech giants which rely on content from newsbrands to power their services.

“Content from UK news brands drives around a billion social media interactions a year, and eight of the top 10 most shared UK websites on social media were UK news media sites. As the New Statesman succinctly put it recently: ‘most media organisations are now tenant farmers on Facebook’s estate.’

“So we have the irony that the advertising revenues that fund the trusted news that people want are diminishing rapidly and its providers are heavily regulated, while the platforms and the social media that feed on them are almost wholly unregulated and growing exponentially.

“That disparity will be made much worse as a result of the amendments to the Data Protection Bill that the House passed last night—I had to say that just for the sake of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Not least as a result of that, the stage is set for the growth of fake news here, fuelled by advertising supply chains described recently by Marc Pritchard of Proctor & Gamble as “murky at best”.”