Lord Black Warns Threats To Journalism Are Existential

The need for trusted and verifiable sources of journalism has never been greater yet the threats it faces have become existential as advertising revenues evaporate, Lord Black of Brentwood has warned.

Speaking in a House of Lords debate on the Queen’s Speech this week, Lord Black said the Online Safety Bill was an opportunity to begin the journey of levelling the playing field between the tech platforms and news media publishers.  

He warned that the situation for news media was grave “particularly for the local and regional press, which are now in real peril” and called for legislation to give the new Digital Markets Unit the statutory powers to tackle the tech platforms. 

More than 260 local newspapers have disappeared since 2005 and, in the past year alone, there have been more than 2,000 job cuts across the media in the UK, Lord Black, chairman of the News Media Association’s legal, policy and regulatory affairs committee, said.

The Online Safety Bill, which includes an exemption for news media publishers, is a welcome start of a journey of levelling up the essential duties and responsibilities of the platforms to those to which traditional publishers have long been subject.

Lord Black said: “During pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, we must ensure that this exemption is both watertight and practical so that news publishers are not subject to any form of statutory control, and that there is no scope for the platforms to censor legitimate content.

“We have the opportunity with this legislation to lead the world in ensuring proper regulation of news content on the internet, and to show how that can be reconciled with protecting free speech and freedom of expression. It is an opportunity we should seize.”

Lord Black added: “Finally, I mention one thing not in the gracious Speech: legislation to give the Digital Markets Unit statutory powers to underpin a code of conduct to ensure fair trading, open choices, trust and transparency in digital advertising and, above all, to compel tech companies to pay for the content they carry.

“Reform is long overdue. It is now more than two years since both the Cairncross Review and the Treasury’s Furman review recommended radical change to ensure the future of quality journalism, and nearly a year since the CMA’s excellent report on the issue was published.

“They all reached the same conclusion: change must come, and soon, if we are to save the free press. There has been progress, including the establishment of the Digital Markets Unit within the CMA, but it is not enough.

“We need a Competition Bill as soon as possible to give the DMU the statutory powers it needs to tackle the platforms. It is an opportunity for the UK to show it is leading the world in dealing with a problem.”

Speaking in the debate, Lord Dubs called for robust action to tackle the tech platforms and their impact on news.

He said: “It is ironic that at a time when the future of local and national newspapers is in doubt, many are struggling to survive because online giants such as Google and Facebook are paying nothing for news content.

“It is the social media or online platforms that should pay news providers for the news. In 2019, Google and Facebook took 80 per cent of the £14 billion spent on digital advertising, and national and local news titles took only four per cent.

“The Australian Government have shown the way to do it; we should do likewise.”