Whittingdale: Digital Markets Unit Legislation Will Provide ‘Spur’ For Agreement Between News Publishers And Tech Platforms

Forthcoming legislation to underpin the new Digital Markets Unit to regulate the tech platforms will provide a “very good spur” to try and achieve agreement between the publishers and the platforms, the Minister for Media and Data John Whittingdale has said. 

Speaking to Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray during a keynote talk for the Society’s virtual conference, Mr Whittingdale confirmed that the DMU would have statutory backing to be enacted “preferably” in the next Parliamentary session.   

Talking about the establishment of the DMU, which was welcomed by the News Media Association last week, Mr Whittingdale said: “We are hoping to give it statutory backing which obviously requires legislation and we will certainly be hoping to be able to do that soon, preferably in the next session.

“Obviously that’s a question for the Government as a whole with lots of competing requirements for legislation but I encourage your members to make the case as to why we do need to do that quickly.

He added: “I hope the fact that legislation is coming will provide a very good spur to try and achieve an agreement between the publishers and the platforms.”  

In a wide ranging discussion, Mr Whittingdale confirmed that journalistic websites would be exempt from the new online harms regime and that Governement was looking at ways to ensure journalistic content could be shared on social media 

He said: “We’ve been very clear that journalistic content needs to be protected so that it is not taken down. We’ve made plain firstly that journalistic websites and comments on those are exempt from the legislation but we’re also in discussion to make sure that material which is produced from professional journalistic sources can be shared and not be removed as a result of the legislation and that’s something we’ll continue to talk to you about.”

He added: “We are very clear that people should be able to share on social media content which is professionally sourced and produced by reputable journalistic organisations and we are looking at finding a way to make sure that that happens.” 

Mr Whittingdale talked about Government initiatives to support the industry during the coronavirus pandemic such as the extension of VAT zero rating to e publications, work to stop keyword blocking around news stories about the pandemic, giving journalists key worker status, and keeping permits for newspaper deliverers in place.  

He said: “The lack of advertising was clearly the biggest problem and we were able to assist there, not just as a Government subsidy, but actually because it was very important for Government to get across the message about the public health requirements. 

“So, we did agree the partnership which led to a major package of advertising expenditure and I’m told the most successful campaign ever mounted in terms of its reach and immediate impact.

“That has helped and there will still be further Government information both in terms of the COVID crisis and the continuing health measures and the explanation of what the tiers mean for instance, but also as we come up to the end of the transition period and Brexit actually becoming a reality, that too has led to a need to get across some messaging so newspapers are playing a vital part in that.”

Mr Whittingdale also talked about work to improve the safety of journalists and the forthcoming national action plan.

Talking about the relationship between the media and Government during the pandemic, Mr Whittingdale said: “One of the things that I think this has brought out is the importance of professional trusted content and that is something that public service broadcasters bring but also professionally edited, sourced, legally checked journalism in print.

“That becomes all the more important when you are trying to counter this wave of disinformation that is just gossip and speculation. I think that everybody recognises how vitally important the media has been.”