Lord Griffiths of Burry Port (Lab)
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement and I guess we begin with the remark at the very end, which indicates that the genie cannot be put back into the bottle: we are where we are and we must look at this matter from here. I cannot, for my part, look at a consideration of this kind other than from the point of view of small local communities whose service—the service they receive from local press—will be radically affected by recent developments; indeed, it has been already. While the genie cannot be put back into the bottle, we should not hide from view, or fail to prioritise in our consideration, those communities whose cohesion is being reduced by the developments we are talking about.
Dame Frances has done a splendid job. I went to one of the consultation sessions she held here in Parliament and it is clear that she has these concerns too. Written journalism, in print or online, supplies the largest quantity of original journalism and is most at risk: the figures have been quoted. The reduction in public interest reporting, which again was particularly concentrated on in the report and in the Statement, seems to have an effect on community engagement, and that concerns me greatly. Local democracy, such as voter turnout and the accountability of local institutions, has been particularly undermined. The operation of the market that has taken so much advertising away from traditional local newspapers can easily be identified as a contributing factor—indeed, an overriding factor—in this demise. The report sets out some concrete proposals about how we might look at the question. I have not yet found myself able to intellectualise what can be done about the fact that advertising is being taken away through these platforms, even through the BBC’s local news availability projects, and how it can be restored, other than perhaps finding some way of taxing, controlling or regulating the way the market is operating—and we know that that is a difficult concept for many people.
The digital revolution has not just affected how people arrive at news online; it has also changed their habits and their attitudes to news. This, of course, is the problem. As it says in the report, people now skim for their news or scroll for their news; they passively absorb news. An increasing percentage of those who take news in whatever form are worried about “fake news”. People read material shown to them by platforms largely based on data analytics and algorithms. There is something terrifically unnerving about that. In this and other debates, week after week, we have heard concerns of this kind expressed from a number of directions.
We are told that editors no longer pay attention to how stories are ranked. They no longer take much time to consider how to display stories on their homepage. Instead, they are led by the study of the market, habits, customs and conventions. They let their news follow the way things are in the marketplace. In addition to that, mergers and acquisitions by digital giants have meant that more than half of all digital advertising revenues are now hoovered up by just two companies. In the light of all this debilitation—and there is so much more that could be rehearsed—I ask the Minister how we can redress the balance.
I began my working life as a reporter on a local newspaper. Every week, I was responsible for the front page of the Burry Port Star. It was an organ of considerable influence—