Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760 - 779)


Mr Jeremy Dear, Professor Julian Petley, Mr Tim Gopsill and Dr Martin Moore

  Q760  Lord King of Bridgwater: A core area being ... ?

  Mr Dear: Broadcasting and newspaper industry.

  Q761  Lord King of Bridgwater: You think there are about how much?

  Mr Dear: About three-quarters.

  Q762  Lord King of Bridgwater: And you think that you have a good handle on the over 25 in numbers?

  Mr Dear: I think absolutely. All I am saying is that we cannot say for every weekly newspaper around the country whether or not it has the number of staff that it had 10 years ago. What we can say across the big groups is where we know there have been substantial cuts in the numbers of journalists.

  Q763  Lord King of Bridgwater: Did you give us the figure for the overall number of journalists in the country?

  Mr Dear: That is a question that no-one can answer. If you look at the Government's labour force survey, they have one figure. If you look at figures produced by the National Council for the Training of Journalists and others, they have others because of the definition of what a journalist is. Do you count people who work on blogs? Do you count people who work on their own individual Internet publications? Do you count people in public relations? The estimates vary between 70,000 and 100,000 but I do not think that anyone can authoritatively say.

  Q764  Lord King of Bridgwater: As against 20 years ago?

  Mr Dear: No. The point I am making is that there are more journalists today but they are not working in local and regional newspapers. There are a lot more journalists today working in a lot more media and certainly broadcasting has grown substantially over the years, the magazine industry has grown substantially over the years and of course Internet and online journalism has grown substantially. What the Newspaper Society said is that there were more journalists working in local newspapers and that is not the case and that is where the real damage is being done, it is to coverage of local communities.

  Mr Gopsill: It may be helpful to explain that a lot of the information we are putting comes from surveys of the offices. We are currently in the process of compiling a major report on the effect on news provision and indeed on working conditions and so on of the multi-skilling work that we heard you discussing in the last session covering the points that Professor Curran was talking about, the drawbacks that online news is introducing. We will be producing this report at the end of November and I think it will be of great interest and we would be quite happy to send it to the Committee. It is based on surveys of our offices and the experience of journalists around the country.

  Q765  Baroness Eccles of Moulton: You say that the overall number of journalists has increased over the last X years although decreased in some areas. That inevitably presumes an increase in revenue coming into the industry as a whole because journalists are paid. We understand that advertising revenue, which is one of the main sources, is shrinking in the traditional media and that the advertising is being to some extent replaced by online advertising which is not as lucrative as the other sort. How has it come about that the number of people employed has gone up when it seems to be quite difficult to see how the revenue would have equally increased to the industry as a whole?

  Mr Gopsill: It is actually related to the last answer and this is why I think that the Committee's inquiry is so timely. There was a huge change behind the industry and a turbulent change going on at the moment and one of the changes is caused by the concern of publishers at the loss of advertising revenue from newspapers which they cannot duplicate online because people are migrating from newspapers not to news websites but to commercial websites. If you want to book a holiday or buy a house and you used to look at an advert in a newspaper and that newspaper now has a website, you do not look at that newspaper's website, you go to a travel website or a buy a property website. The great concern of publishers is that they cannot therefore replicate that advertising which is the reason why they are making all these cuts in spending. The new work is in online and, as Jeremy said, in broadcasting but also there is a huge degree of casualisation of the industry. There has been a huge increase in the number of freelance journalists. Colleges are now producing large numbers of young, enthusiastic journalists with no jobs to go to and the whole industry is being destabilised by an oversupply of labour. There are tens of thousands of people who call themselves journalists who come out of college and work as freelances and it is very hard for us to be in touch with them, which is the reason why the answers have to be a little vague.

  Mr Dear: This is the front page of the trade publication the Press Gazette (to be clear not the NUJ Magazine) this week where the three leading regional newspaper publishers say that they are invoicing for the largest ever advertising revenue this week. All those people who say that newspapers and their industry are doomed are wrong. It is only when they come to negotiate pay with us that there is a crisis in advertising. Online advertising revenue is significantly up. Trinity Mirror last year: a 100% increase in their online advertising revenue. It is a shift sometimes from their newspaper to their online, it is not that these companies themselves are losing money. They are still making profits of between 30 and 35%, more than twice what Tesco achieves as one of the leading British companies, and our complaint is that they are excessively profiteering at the expense of local democracy and local coverage and local communities, whether it is online or in their newspaper. These companies are certainly not poor. Trinity Mirror made a £400,000 profit every single day last year.

  Chairman: You have however suggested that there ought to be more regulation and perhaps Baroness Howe could ask some questions on that issue.

  Q766  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: On regulation, certainly the NUJ seems to be pointing very hard for further action and the fact that the PCC has not really delivered on all things that it was meant to be able to maintain. Clearly you have a number of areas: editors to be protected, journalists if they refuse to breach professional codes and so on. Could you identify one area where you think it would be most important to preserve the high quality and diversity of news media?

  Professor Petley: I think again it depends on whether we are talking about broadcasting or whether we are talking about newspapers. If we are talking about newspapers, I think that to have a PCC which had some form of teeth would be a very good idea. If we are talking about broadcasting, I think that rather than perhaps looking for new forms of regulation, if we are talking about Ofcom here, it would be a very good idea if Ofcom would use some of the powers which it does already possess. Ofcom does seem to be a rather odd regulator, in my view, in that it seems to be a regulator that does not want to regulate, or indeed a regulator that wants to see the abolition of certain kinds of regulation. I know that is one of the questions you may come on to later, but I personally would argue and have argued in my response to the Ofcom document New News, Future News that to abolish the impartiality regulations would be an absolute catastrophe, in my view, and would do immeasurable harm to the positive values of broadcast journalism. In fact, what I would argue and have argued is that the first thing that should be done is that Fox News should be made to abide by the impartiality regulations and, if not, should be delicensed in exactly the same way that Med TV was delicensed by the predecessor body, the ITC. Frankly, I find it incomprehensible that Fox News can enjoy the imprimatur of Ofcom licensing when it is flagrantly in breach of the impartiality regulations and I think that weaselling about with words like "due" is exactly that, a use of weasel words. I do really think that if you allow certain broadcasters to get away with not having to obey the impartiality regulations, you will very, very shortly end up with a situation where other broadcasters say, "Well, why should we?"

  Q767  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I would like to press you all a little further on this. The first thing is, is that the view of all of you? The second thing is, can you really talk about broadcast and other forms of media when everything is going to be blurring on every platform you could think of?

  Dr Moore: May I jump in there on behalf of especially the Media Standards Trust because I think that is exactly the point I was going to make on what Julian said about the PCC. I think that there is an urgent need to think an awful lot harder about the area of both self-regulation and regulation. Traditionally, the PCC, as was said by the previous witnesses, has been able to get away with very lax self-regulation by the very fact that there was a limited market. We have seen in the last year the PCC significantly increase its remit by taking on audiovisual material on the net, yet not have either the resources or the experience to do it. We have seen Ofcom desperately trying to avoiding stepping into the whole area of the Internet. That is where all the important and interesting questions are developing. So, where you have essentially broadcast television on the net on 18 Doughty Street which is openly right wing politically—it calls itself "Politics for Adults"—and broadcasting on the net because it is not covered by any existing guidelines, at the same time we have this curious melding of newspapers with broadcasters, so you have broadcast content on The Telegraph's website and you have emerging collaborations between broadcast content and both newspapers on the web and other websites but no-one willing to step in and think about if it ought to be regulated, how it ought to be regulated and the degree to which self-regulation can provide the answer. Because there is this gaping hole at the moment in terms of thought, discussion and debate, it is a gap that the PCC is stepping into and I think is incapable of filling, although it says that it can.

  Q768  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Surely, to some extent, it is not Ofcom's fault that it is not as involved as maybe by now we all think it perhaps should be because the Communications Act should give it specifically a limited area in education and so on where it could become involved. Maybe that is an area where new powers are needed for Ofcom quite specifically. I would like to move on to the last part of this particular question which I think you know about. Given the Murdoch empire and its latest acquisition, what are your views on the structures that Mr Murdoch has in place to achieve editors' autonomy at The Times and now The Wall Street Journal?

  Mr Gopsill: Over the last few decades, there have been quite a number of places where independent directors have been installed over a takeover supposedly to protect the editorial independence and you have to say that it has been a complete failure in every instance and the reason is that they can only be invoked by the editors themselves. The Observer has the same thing and The Times and The Sunday Times do as well. The independent directors meet at the invitation of the editor when the editor believes that he or she is being interfered with by the proprietor. The problem is that, when things go wrong, it is usually the editor's decision and they do not call them in. I can give you a very clear example of not Murdoch but when The Observer was owned by Lonrho. It was shamelessly used to pursue his vendetta with Mohammed Al Fayed over the ownership of Harrods which was a matter of no interest to anybody except those two, but you might remember that, on one occasion, a Department of Trade and Industry report came out condemning Al Fayed and The Observer produced a mid-week edition on a Wednesday, unknown before or since, solely to gratify the vanity of Tiny Rowlands. The editor at the time, who is now a Professor, was Donald Trelford—I remember very well writing about it myself—and there was a board of independent directors that was set up when Lonrho took over The Observer and I spoke to the Chairman of the Board and I asked him, "What are you doing about this?" and he said, "We haven't been called to meet by the editor and there is nothing that we can do". I notice that there is another point in the question here about establishing the independence of editors from proprietors, then just the setting up of independent directors will not have any effect.

  Q769  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: I have one further point on this. Given the comments about the PCC which of course has moved towards more independent members but nevertheless is very much involved with the existing newspaper proprietors, newspaper owners and editors, should any future body with more power perhaps that you are suggesting be composed of people who no longer had—you need the experience of the past—direct interest?

  Dr Moore: On the PCC, I think that it is astonishing how anachronistic the governing structures of the PCC are. All you need to do is look at the membership of the different committees within the PCC. That would not be accepted in virtually any other industry. You have someone who is the Executive Editor at News International sitting on both the funding committee and the editorial committee. You have an editor of the Daily Mail sitting both on the editorial code committee and on the PCC. In other words, they are both setting the rules and policing the rules themselves and then monitoring themselves. The whole thing is slightly absurd in a way which I think is why there is an urgent need to review it and to undertake an independent review of the self-regulation particularly as it expands.

  Q770  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: I am glad that you came back to that point because I wanted to ask whether any of you heard the evidence that Professor Collins gave us a short while ago in which he, quite provocatively, referred to the possibility that perhaps some irresponsibility was quite a good thing in journalism and that over-regulation, by implication, therefore might be not always a good thing. What I would say, with respect, none of you has yet answered is what you think a differently regulated environment would look like and what the outcomes might be from such regulation as compared with what you clearly regard as unsatisfactory now. We might all agree with you about that but there is an issue here about the relationship between regulation and what one might loosely call free speech, is there not?

  Professor Petley: I heard Professor Collins's remarks and largely agreed with them. I think that irresponsible journalism is often a very good thing, but it seems to me that there is "irresponsible" journalism in the public interest which I think is a good thing and there is "irresponsible" journalism which is simply in the interests of making money which is not a particularly good thing. I think that in particular in recent years the Law Lords have made some very, very interesting analyses of what does actually constitute journalism "in the public interest" and I think that that kind of journalism most certainly needs to be protected. It needs to be protected first of all from oppressive laws and also it needs to be protected from the kinds of economic pressures which discourage this kind of journalism, which is expensive. I am all in favour of "irresponsible" journalism if it is journalism in the public interest. Unfortunately, I think that there are not only oppressive laws which stop that kind of high quality investigative journalism but also the kinds of pressures that Jeremy has talked about, with newspapers in particular finding it simply not possible to put in that amount of resources and money. I would cite as an example of good journalism, which I dare say the Government does regard as irresponsible, the journalism carried by David Leigh at The Guardian on BAE, but, believe you me, that cost an awful lot of money.

  Dr Moore: To come back to the point that Professor Collins was making before, I think it would be King Canute-like to think that one can regulate or even self-regulate the emerging market because of the explosion in the ability to self-publish and a very good thing that is too, but, to reiterate the point I heard him making towards the end of the session, having self-consciousness about the journalism in this country such that you have a body which is not only upholding the rights of editors and proprietors to print what they like but is actually doing reviews and taking the initiative to understand what standards in journalism are, which is trying to build up public interest in journalism but also to distinguish it from poor journalism, none of which the PCC does or indeed anyone does at the moment.

  Q771  Chairman: There always seems to be much of the irresponsible journalism that is not about making profit but satisfying the interest of the public which is a slightly different thing to public interest.

  Professor Petley: Absolutely. I would like to come back on a point which Martin made. Before the not greatly lamented Press Council was wound up, when Louis Blom Cooper was chair of it, it did begin to move towards the kind of activities which Martin has just spoken about, in particular commissioning research which is something that the PCC does not do and should do. But I do know from talking to him that as the Press Council became more proactive, so the newspaper industry was less prepared to finance it.

  Chairman: I would like to switch to the local regional news and local radio.

  Q772  Bishop of Manchester: I note that there is an NUJ protect in Manchester on 5 November entitled Stand up for Journalists and I gather from the publicity that I have received about this that it is to do with journalistic quality, standards and, in particular, opposing job cuts. It is being held up there in the north in Manchester where we are very proud of our local and regional media and I note from the evidence that you have given us in writing the anecdotal aspects of the Walsall newspaper and the effects that that had on jobs, but I am also aware from the publicity about the protest that it is apparently part of a European-wide protest movement. So, my question about this is to what extent the issues about regional and local press to which you have already referred in earlier answers apply across Europe. Are we in a very different position in terms of our local and regional newspapers than the situation currently on the rest of the continent?

  Mr Dear: We are not in a different situation, we are in a more extreme situation. I do have to pick up one point you made about 5 November. It is actually called Stand up for Journalism, not Stand up for Journalists, and that is a very important distinction because you would expect the NUJ to be standing up for journalists. What we are saying in this case is that actually the situation in some sections of the industry is so severe that we need to highlight the damage that is being done, not just on pay or hours or those traditional trade union issues but to the very fundamentals of journalism. For example, we have done studies about whether papers are still covering council meetings. There are dozens and dozens of newspapers that do not send reporters, as I used to get sent as a young reporter, to cover every council and sub-committee of a council and pore over the papers. They ring the council press office the day after the meeting and say, "What went on last night at the council meeting?" That is fantastic if you are the party in power, it is not so good if you are the party in opposition or if you have a different view from that. I think that Peter Wright from The Mail on Sunday in giving evidence to you gave the case about people not being able to send reporters out any more to cover some story. That situation is happening across Europe but it is happening in a much more extreme way here and, when we talk to our colleagues in Europe about the profit levels that are expected, the returns that are expected in the UK media compared to others in Europe, which we believe are driving this de-peopling of journalism and this lack of resources, then they are bemused at how some of these newspapers can actually continue to publish and have any news in them. It is the same problem but a more extreme variant.

  Chairman: I turn to the whole concept of press releases.

  Q773  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: It really does follow on very much from what you have just said. We have heard a lot of people say that journalists are increasingly reliant on outputs of the kind you have just described: press releases from councils, from corporations or whatever. Are there any benefits to journalism from the growth of the PR industry in the way that we have seen or is it a net downside?

  Professor Petley: I think that there can be benefits. There is our old friend the information subsidy. If you are given good press releases, dossiers or whatever and you are a journalist, that can be very helpful. I think what we have seen is a development of two tendencies at the same time which actually result in a very negative and destructive consequence for journalism. One is that we have seen a massive growth of PR. There is nothing new in PR obviously, but what we have seen is a huge growth in PR, and PR coming into areas where it has not necessarily exercised itself very much before: politics would be a good example of that. So, on the one hand is the huge growth of PR. On the other hand, as Jeremy and Tim eloquently talked about, there has been a declining number of journalists and a declining skill of journalists, so that you have an enormous increase in the information subsidy and, at the same time, you have a decreasing number of journalists and a decrease in the amount of skill in journalists. Under those circumstances, it is very easy simply to recycle the press release.

  Q774  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: I am puzzled by this question of numbers. I know that we should not get hung on them. We have talked about increasing numbers of journalists and decreasing numbers of journalists. We have talked about increased resources and diminished resources. It feels to me as though what you are pointing to is a kind of journalism which is in a decline rather than simply the width of it. Can you talk a little about standards.

  Dr Moore: I think you are right; I think it is important to be clear about what we mean by journalists. I think the reporters and reporting and particularly reporting in the public interest is what is most seriously under threat and what we need to think about particularly. To build on Julian's point about public relations, the important aspect about public relations is that it enhances and accelerates a shift that is happening as well from the public interest to the private interest and from both the idea of the public interest and also the actuality of the public interest. For example, if you take something like the extremely successful PR company Bell Pottinger, they represent a significant number of clients including people like Boris Berezovsy, BAE and others and control the flow of information from those individuals and companies in such a way that is absolutely in the private interest of those companies and those individuals and not in the public interest more generally.

  Q775  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: May I pursue this point. Lady McIntosh was talking about PR but there is also the existence of the Internet. We all agree that it is not a good thing for journalists to get their information just from the Internet, they should be out there et cetera, et cetera. Having said that, the Internet does provide access to information more quickly and in some cases in greater detail than existed when I started out, for instance. Also, there are lots of people who are working as journalists on the Internet, but am I right in thinking that you are ignoring them as journalists?

  Mr Dear: Absolutely not. We have hundreds if not thousands of them in membership of our union, so to ignore them would be foolhardy in the extreme, and some of the best journalism that is happening very often is happening online as well or the use of online means to back up journalism. Someone mentioned the BAE inquiry, the David Leigh/Rob Evans work that was done at The Guardian. If you look at the online version of that, there is significant extra material and maps and all kinds of information that is absolutely fantastic use of it. The Internet can be an amazing tool for journalists to be able to use. User-generated content or citizen journalism or however you want to dub it can help journalists to do their job as well, but it should not be a replacement for going out and asking questions, the going out investigating for yourself and the talking to people, and it is this kind of de-peopling that we are concerned about because it affects the quality in that you are stuck at your desk and the only way you have to research a story is to use Google. On the question of whether we are talking about more or less, what we are talking about is significantly more media, significantly more media platforms and therefore more journalists but a spreading of journalists thinner over those more platforms. So, while there are more journalists in individual newspapers or individual TV—take ITV—there are significantly lesser numbers of journalists who cover each of those media.

  Q776  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Mr Gopsill said earlier that people are pouring out of media study courses and have nowhere to go and I do not know whether that is the case or not but, in your written evidence, you say that there is not a good enough training scheme in place for journalists and that this should be put in place. That seems to me to be a slight contradiction there.

  Mr Dear: It is not that there is not a good enough scheme. There are lots of good schemes with different standards and different requirements. What we have long argued for is given that journalists are increasingly multi-skilled across different environments, there should be a common set of standards across all different forms of journalism training. The kind of deregulation to some extent of journalism training has also opened up a lot of private colleges which offer at huge expense so-called journalism courses from which the vast majority of people who come out do not get jobs in the industry. There are two types of journalism training. There is excellent journalism training that goes on that we very much support but there needs to be a common set of standards across all the different media in those.

  Q777  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: In fact, what you are talking about here is protecting the student, as it were, rather than—

  Mr Dear: Absolutely. It is very confusing if you are a student wanting to go into journalism to understand all these different qualifications and different types of courses.

  Q778  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Your concern is not that there are no good courses for training journalists?

  Mr Dear: No, there are good courses.

  Mr Gopsill: The concern is actually for the public because even public colleges and universities have journalism training of variable questionable quality in some cases because the whole training of journalists is in colleges now rather than in house and on the job as it used to be. There are journalists who are coming into the industry working online with whom who we do not necessarily have contact and the concern is very much linked with technology and the effect on the job. The dangers with using the Internet—and you have mentioned the advantages—is the unreliability of information on the Internet if this is the only way you are reporting and also often the inability to work out the original problems of material because the whole business of highlighting, copying and pasting has transformed the practice of journalism and it is so easy to do and stuff gets into print and on air when nobody actually knows where it comes from. Just as an example of how serious this can be, we have noticed a huge increase in the number of hoaxes and fake stories that are getting published now because they come from an Internet source and nobody knows where they originated.

  Mr Dear: Or the number of times a factual inaccuracy in a story gets repeated in the next one and the next one as well.

  Q779  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: May I pin you down on one thing. I think it is the case that there are fewer and fewer training schemes that are financed by newspapers and broadcasters.

  Mr Dear: The broadcasting industry is slightly different in this respect in that there is a sector Skills Council skillset and there is effectively a levy from the broadcasters that helps to train lots of the freelancers. BBC, for example, still has proper training schemes, as do others.

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