Why we need a UK equivalent of the Knight News Challenge

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This post was first published on the LSE Media Policy Project blog on 9th October 2014

You’ll remember the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life: the angel Clarence shows George Bailey what Bedford Falls would look like if he had never existed. Mr Potter owns virtually everything in the town. There are pawnshops, night clubs and neon bars all down the high street. Nothing functions in the re-named ‘Pottersville’ without Mr Potter taking a cut.

In five years’ time, a new media giant such as Google or Facebook could have a similar stranglehold on our local media.

Our local print press continues to decline. In the first half of 2014 alone, local newspaper circulation dropped by an average of 13.5 per cent year-on-year. Since 2000, regional newspaper paid circulation has more than halved.

Hyperlocal websites are starting to fill the democratic gap, but slowly and intermittently. There are fewer than fifteen hyperlocal sites in Northern Ireland and fewer than thirty in Wales and Scotland (Ofcom, 2013). Less than a third of hyperlocal sites make enough money even to cover even basic costs (Barnett/Townend 2014).

Open data has yet to animate an army of armchair auditors, as the Coalition government hoped it would. ‘Simply putting data “out there”’, the Public Administration Committee said in 2014, ‘is not enough to keep Government accountable’ (PAC, Tenth Report).

Civic technology has not taken off in the UK as it has in the US

We do not yet have an equivalent to Nextdoor.com – the private residents’ social network, or neighbor.ly – the crowdfunding site for local civic projects, or openplans.org – digital tools to involve people more closely in planning decisions.

The amount invested in local news and civic technology in the US – for profit and non-profit – dwarfs that invested in the UK. The Knight Foundation alone has put over $235 million into journalism and media innovation in the last eight years. MacArthur, Rockefeller, Open Society, Ford and other foundations have also supported innovation in this area. Private investors have invested more still, particularly in civic technology. Between 2011 and 2013, private funders put $364 million into civic technology in the US (Knight Foundation, 2013).

In contrast, our local civic innovators and entrepreneurs are starved of support. NESTA, Technology Strategy Board and Carnegie are almost the only non-commercial funders supporting innovation in local news and information.

The consequences are becoming clear. Local news and information providers are increasingly unable to perform the role expected of the Fourth Estate. Local businesses and services are ever more reliant on non-UK technology platforms. We urgently need to alter our trajectory. We need to move from deterioration and dependence to innovation and growth.

Spurring innovation

The best way to change this is through a local news competition. A competition in which individuals and organisations would compete for awards of between £10,000 and £50,000 to start, grow and run the local news and civic technology of the future.

Similar competitions already exist in the US – like the Knight News Challenge. Over the first five years of the Challenge, Knight gave awards to 79 news innovation projects – a total of $26.5 million.

A UK version of such a competition could see a transformation of local news. Ten million pounds a year for five years would lead to over 2,000 award winners: 2,000 local news and civic technology projects around the UK. It would be a bottom up revolution in local news, driven by people in the local areas themselves. Compare this to the 30 licenses granted to organisations to provide local broadcast TV services.

Neither does such a competition need to be supported through existing public funds. The French government set up a €60 million news transition fund paid for by Google (following a dispute about whether Google should pay to display news content in its search results). Eric Schmidt has since said he is happy to discuss a similar arrangement in the UK. Alternatively, there could be a more realistic charge for the collection and commercial re-use of personal data.

Such a competition could create a flowering of innovation and information about local communities. It could energise civic participation and democratic engagement. It could leave a legacy of enterprise, experience and invention that would put the UK at the forefront of digital information development.

The alternative? We could watch as new media giants – most US-based – colonise our local areas, providing digital platforms for everything from the council to the police to local business. These digital giants would necessarily levy a charge or subsidise their services through local advertising.

As with Mr Potter’s Bedford Falls – or rather Pottersville – nothing will function in Bedford, Bedfordshire, without Google or Facebook taking a cut.

The full report on which this post is based – ‘Addressing the Democratic Deficit in Local News through Positive Plurality’ – was published by the Media Standards Trust on 9 October 2014. 

Written by Martin Moore

October 17th, 2014 at 11:33 am

Can Newspapers Convince the Public IPSO is not a ‘sham’?

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This post was first published at the Huffington Post UK on 8th September 2014

As IPSO – the press’ response to Leveson – opened for business this week, newspapers may be wondering whether they will be able to convince the public that it is not just a replica of its discredited predecessor, the Press Complaints Commission.

No doubt IPSO will receive praise from newspapers themselves – at least initially. But will this be enough to paper over its shortcomings? And will it be enough to distract the public from how far the self-regulator is from what Leveson recommended, and from what Parliament agreed.

Based on the public’s response to the coverage of the Leveson Report and its implementation by the national press, the answer is no. It is highly unlikely that positive newspaper coverage will ever convince the public that IPSO is independent or effective.

In the twelve months after Leveson published his recommendations, from November 2012 to November 2013, the national press – with the notable exceptions of The Guardian, The Independent and the FT – went for Leveson’s report and the subsequent settlement by Royal Charter with undisguised and undiluted rage.

The rage did not come in intermittent shouts, but as one persistent scream. 2,047 articles published over twelve months. That equates to an average of six articles in the national press each day on press regulation, every day for a year. The subject was covered far more than it was during the Inquiry itself (when there was, arguably, ‘news’ coming out of the Royal Courts of Justice every day).

Nor were these articles neutral news reports. Over two-thirds of the two thousand articles expressed a view about Leveson or its aftermath. Most of these views were negative. Seven out of ten leader columns about press regulation after Leveson – out of 217 published – were wholly negative. In other words, they did not have a single positive thing to say about Leveson or the post-Leveson settlement.

Headlines of the leader articles will give you a pretty good impression: ‘Shadow of fear over public’s right to know’, ‘Lords-a-leaping to gag the press’, ‘Statutes against liberty’, ‘Defy the zealots and defend liberty’, ‘Don’t give up on press freedom now’, ‘A muzzled media will make victims of us all’, ‘Press freedom – no longer made in Britain’, ‘Charging headlong to a secret state’. And so on and on.

The negative coverage was not restricted to opinion and leader columns either. The majority of news reports expressed a view too. In many cases this view was not a quote from a news source but just stated within the article, as though it were an accepted fact. For example, under the headline ‘Papering over the cracks’, the Daily Mirror reported that “Lord Leveson [sic] sparked fears for the future of investigative journalism yesterday by proposing draconian curbs on reporters” (30th November, 2012).

Simultaneously, newspapers praised their own efforts to create an industry Royal Charter and to set-up their own Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). Of 19 leader columns in the national press about the industry Royal Charter, all 19 were wholly positive. Of eight leader columns in the national press about IPSO during this period, all eight were wholly positive. North Korean leaders could hardly hope for a better press.

Perhaps, you might argue, this was because there was not a diversity of views out there. Yet there was. The leading Leveson recommendations were supported by all parties in Parliament, by the victims of press abuse, by many civil society groups and – most importantly – by the public (based on four polls conducted in the weeks surrounding the publication of the judge’s report, one commissioned by The Sunday Times). Support persisted amongst all these groups for the Royal Charter agreement reached in March 2013.

Or perhaps you might argue that the newspapers were simply reflecting a hardening of the public’s views following the Inquiry, and growing fears amongst the public about the potential threat of the recommendations to press freedom.

But again, this is not borne out by the evidence. 24 opinion polls were commissioned between May 2012 and June 2014 that covered aspects of press regulation. Even taking into account the use of trigger words in questions (‘MPs’, ‘politicians’, ‘independent’) the view of the majority of the public is not hard to discern from these.

According to almost all these polls the British public want tough press regulation. We are comfortable with press regulation being supported through legislation. We do not see this is a threat to press freedom. We are distrustful of politicians. We are even more distrustful of newspapers.

These views hardly changed over the course of the year following Leveson’s report, despite the cavalcade of abuse hurled at the judge’s recommendations and at the Royal Charter in much of the national press.

One has to conclude, therefore, that when it came to press regulation most national newspapers were not interested in representing the views of the public. Nor were they concerned to balance their own views with the views of those who disagreed with them. They preferred to publish articles that conformed to their own viewpoint and to suppress or ignore those of others. Their own viewpoint, consistent with their own self-interest, was to denigrate Leveson’s report and its implementation.

And yet, despite this outpouring of rage and negativity by most of the national press, public opinion remained consistently in favour of a Leveson system and consistently against the industry alternatives.

The lesson from the past couple of years is that paeans of praise from newspapers for IPSO will have little impact on the public’s confidence in it. Without public confidence no regulator can hope to survive for long.

The figures in this piece come from a new report published by the Media Standards Trust – ‘How newspapers covered press regulation after Leveson’ by Dr Gordon Neil Ramsay which can be read here. The full dataset is available here.

Written by Martin Moore

September 25th, 2014 at 4:08 pm

Is Distrust of Facebook Contagious?

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This post was first published at the Huffington Post UK on 1st July 2014

What do these three things have in common? Over the course of a week in January 2012 Facebook deliberately manipulated the news feed of almost 700,000 users in order to compare the effects of positive and negative news. In June 2014 Instagram disabled the account of Courtney Adamo after she posted an innocent photograph of her eighteen-month old daughter showing her bellybutton, saying it violated their rules. Research by Psychologist Robert Epstein released in May claimed that Google could, simply by adjusting its search algorithms, influence the outcome of an election by an average of over 12% – easily enough to swing the vote in marginal contests.

All three are within the power and scope of Facebook and Google (Facebook owns Instagram). All three caused public consternation and, in the case of the first two, a popular backlash (it should be emphasized that the third was conceptual rather than actual – the researchers were testing a theory).

When Facebook, Google and other new media behemoths do something that causes public angst or anger they generally apologise and often shift their position.

But they are under no obligation to change their behaviour. These new media behemoths are public companies. As such they are run as autocracies not as democracies. They may perform a positive public role, but only insofar as it suits their aims and continues to support their business model.

As Rebecca MacKinnon wrote of the two big social networks in Consent of the Networked: ‘both Google Plus and Facebook share a Hobbesian approach to governance in which people agree to relinquish a certain amount of freedom to a benevolent sovereign who in turn provides security and other services’.

We know this but often appear to be in denial about it. Yet as we come to rely on these behemoths more and more, we need to remind ourselves that a benevolent sovereign is still a sovereign, and may not always act benevolently.

We need to be especially conscious when it comes to our reliance on these digital sovereigns to perform a civic function. According to the 2014 Reuters Institute Digital News Report Facebook is ‘by far the most important network for news everywhere’. Google, Bing and Yahoo together account for between a third and a half of people’s pathway to news. News is broken on twitter rather than mainstream media.

We may rely on these digital sovereigns, but we have little control over how they perform this civic function, how they choose to evolve it, or when they stop providing it. Google just announced it would be stopping Orkut, one of its social networking platform on September 30th.

In the same way these organisations can choose what content their users are allowed to publish. Breastfeeding photographs fell foul of Facebook’s rules and were removed (the ban was quietly dropped last month). Beheadings were initially allowed, then banned, then allowed again on Facebook. They are now allowed as long as they are posted in ‘the right context’ (hard to imagine what the ‘right context’ is for a beheading).

Local campaigns, that may previously have been led by a local newspaper, are often now organized through Facebook. Whether they are to save a library, to stop a bypass, or find a missing person, these are, by most people’s definition, civic campaigns. Facebook is not obliged to enable people to run these campaigns, and is within its terms of use to censor them – algorithmically or manually.

We should not fool ourselves into believing that algorithms are somehow neutral. Algorithms are like recipes. If you change an ingredient in the recipe, you change the dish. Tweak an algorithm and suddenly, invisibly, the results you receive will change (for good examples see The Filter Bubble).

Algorithms can be as influential in defining an editorial agenda as a newspaper editor. In its experiment Facebook chose to adjust its algorithm to censor specific news updates on the basis of key words. How is this different from a newspaper editor deciding not to publish a news story because of the effect it may have on the reader? Or the advertiser? The chief difference is that people know news stories are chosen subjectively. Many believe that algorithmic results are objective.

This may account for why lots of people appeared to be shocked by Facebook’s psychological research experiment in which its users were the guinea pigs. But this was not the first experiment nor will it be the last.

But whereas one can debate with an editor, or question editorial decisions, it is very hard to see how one can do the same to an algorithm. Especially since these algorithms are closely guarded secrets, the equivalent of the Coke formula.

Revelations about Facebook experiments are waking us up to the fact that these services are not neutral, neither are they simply there for the public good. Yet they are now an integral part of our lives – not just our social but our civic lives too. Our influence over what they do, however, or over what services they provide, or how they use our personal information, is tiny. If you think firing a peashooter at an elephant is ineffectual, try firing emails at Facebook HQ in Menlo Park California.

Written by Martin Moore

July 9th, 2014 at 8:33 am

The Challenges facing Sir Alan Moses

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This post was originally published at the Huffington Post on 9th May 2014.

In his short statement accepting his appointment as Chair of IPSO (the ‘Independent Press Standards Organisation‘), Sir Alan Moses uses the word ‘independent’ or ‘independence’ five times. ‘The public and the press are entitled to a successful system of independent regulation‘ he says.

He then refers to those who have voiced concerns about the ability of IPSO to be independent. In response he points to his career, which he says has been characterized by ‘independent mind and independent judgment‘. ‘I do not‘, he says, ‘intend to do away with that independence now‘.

There is no reason to doubt Sir Alan’s sincerity, nor his personal desire to act independently. But it will be fascinating to see how he tries to put his personal independence into practice from a position where the independence and freedom to manoeuvre is so seriously compromised and constrained before he has even stepped over the threshold.

IPSO has been structured in such a way that few significant decisions can be taken by the Chair, or his Board, without first consulting the industry. Sir Alan will not be expected to determine IPSO’s regulations or structure, these have already been set by the industry, and will be maintained by the industry body behind IPSO – the Regulatory Funding Company (RFC).

The RFC, the successor to PressBoF, is the power behind the whole IPSO system. Its role goes far beyond funding; it stretches into appointments, regulations, investigations, sanctions, arbitration, and the Code. Whatever the Chair’s personal convictions, his powers are fundamentally circumscribed.

Nor is Moses the first judge to believe he can bring his judicial experience and previous independence to bear on press self-regulation, only to be frustrated once in position (see Roy Greenslade).

If Sir Alan wants to avoid the frustrations of his predecessors and does not want to be directed by the principal funders of IPSO (the biggest news publishers), then he will need to test his authority and independence of action early on. Right now he has more leverage then he will ever have later.

So what should Sir Alan do? He could start by trying to:

Free IPSO from direct financial control by the industry

‘It is also clear to me that the funding made available to the PCC is barely sufficient to enable it to conduct its complaints handling functions effectively. Further, in so limiting the funding available to the PCC, the organisation was unable to exercise other functions that might be properly expected of a regulator, for example, in relation to investigations into industry conduct, and the promotion of standards’ (The Leveson Report, p.1521)

If Sir Alan is to be independent, then IPSO will need sufficient funds. He will therefore need to:

Recalculate the budget for IPSO and tell the RFC how much IPSO needs to do its job properly (IPSO’s budget is currently drawn up by the RFC)

  • This requires change to RFC Articles of Association 24.4 & Schedule: 1.10

Make the industry’s budget commitment for a minimum of four years – so that it does not need renegotiation on an annual basis

  • This requires change to RFC Articles of Association 24.4

Make clear that it is IPSO’s responsibility, not the RFC’s to determine the pay of Board members, members of the Complaints Committee, and members of the Appointment panel.

  • Therefore IPSO Articles 24.2, 26.8, and 27.9 will need changing

Remove the RFC’s veto over key IPSO responsibilities

‘The powers of the Independent Funding Body [the proposed successor to PressBoF], which run throughout this proposal, undermine claims to independence of the regulatory system’(The Leveson Report, p.1,630)

An independent regulator does not give its funding body the power of veto over critical decisions.

Sir Alan should tell the newly appointed directors of the RFC that the RFC’s veto in certain areas needs to be removed, such that:

  • The RFC does not have a veto over any changes to the IPSO regulations (IPSO Contract, Clause 7.1)
  • The RFC does not have a veto over any changes to the Code – variations to the Editors’ Code, ‘must first be approved by the Directors [of the RFC]‘ (RFC Articles 10.11)
  • The RFC does not have a veto over the arbitration service (IPSO Contract, Clause 5.4.3)

Give IPSO the freedom to make independent appointments

‘The power of PressBoF in relation to appointments, the Code Committee and the funding of the PCC means that the PCC is far from being an independent body.’ (The Leveon Report, p.1,576)

IPSO should not be required to take account of the views of the RFC when making appointments, either to the Board (via the Appointments Panel) or the Complaints Committee

  • This requires a change to IPSO Articles of Association 22.5 and 27.4 and Regulations 34

Give IPSO the freedom to investigate

‘[I]f there is to be any value in the investigations process, which is itself the only genuinely new part of this proposal from the industry, then it is essential that it should be capable of operating without continually being frustrated by those subject to regulation’ (The Leveson Report, p.1,636).

The power to investigate should be central to IPSO’s effectiveness, but – as currently set out – it is difficult for IPSO to initiate an investigation, and once started, is open to frustration by publishers. To have the freedom to investigate and sanction Sir Alan should seek to:

Enable IPSO to investigate if it finds evidence of serious or systemic breaches of the Code

  • This requires a change to IPSO Articles of Association 8.1.2.b

Reduce the number of opportunities available to publishers to intervene and potentially obstruct investigations

  • This requires a change to IPSO Regulations 40-62

Find out the size of the investigations fund, and alter IPSO’s articles so that IPSO – not the RFC – determines the size of the investigations fund

  • The IPSO Contract, Clause 10 will need altering to reflect this

Give IPSO – and the public – a proper say in the Code of Practice

In addition to outlining the public’s right to privacy, and the publishers’ responsibility to accuracy, the Code of Practice defines the ‘public interest’. The definition, and interpretation, of public interest was central to the Leveson Inquiry. It would therefore seem strange to give Editors’ decisive control over this definition (as the industry currently proposes to do). Therefore if he wants to comes closer to Leveson’s recommendations and ensure the independence of regulation Sir Alan should:

Make the Code of Practice committee a subcommittee of IPSO, not – as now – of the RFC, including the power to appoint members, in consultation with the industry

  • This would require a change to RFC Articles 2.2

Appoint a minority of editors to the Code of Practice Committee

  • This should be part of IPSO’s responsibility as the parent of the Code Committee and would require changes to RFC Articles 2.2 and additions to IPSO’s articles of association

Institute a formal biennial open public consultation on the Code of Practice

  • This would require additions to the IPSO articles of association

Give IPSO the freedom to accept complaints on their merit, not based on who they come from

‘The Board should have the power (but not necessarily in all cases depending on the circumstances the duty) to hear complaints whoever they come from, whether personally and directly affected by the alleged breach, or a representative group affected by the alleged breach, or a third party seeking to ensure accuracy of published information’ (The Leveson Report, p.1,765)

If Sir Alan wants IPSO to accept complaints on merit, he will need to:

Remove the restriction that only allows IPSO to accept complaints from representative groups if they represent a ‘significant’ breach of the Code and there is a ‘substantial’ public interest in accepting the complaint

  • This would require a change to the IPSO Regulation 8

Give IPSO the evidence to launch investigations & publish league tables

There is currently no obligation for IPSO to record whether complaints that cannot be resolved by the news publisher have breached the Code. Indeed it has the opposite obligation. After a publisher has failed to resolve a complaint IPSO is obliged to begin trying to mediate that complaint. No record is kept as to whether a mediated complaint breached the code. Without such a record IPSO will find it difficult to justify launching an investigation, especially an investigation justified by ‘systematic’ breaches of the Code. To give IPSO such evidence Sir Alan should:

Give IPSO the obligation to record all breaches of the Code that cannot be resolved at the publisher concerned

  • This would require a change to IPSO Regulations 14-21

Give IPSO adequate powers to secure meaningful remedies and end the practice of burying apologies

‘the power to direct the nature, extent and placement of apologies should lie with the Board [of the Regulator]‘ (The Leveson Report, p.1,767)

If Sir Alan wants IPSO to have the powers the public believe are necessary (according to opinion polls), he will need to:

Give IPSO the freedom to direct the placement and prominence of apologies where it deems that one is appropriate

  • This would require a change to the IPSO Regulation 22

Take responsibility for the financial sanctions guidance (the guidance which determines the scale of fines)

  • This requires a change to IPSO Contract, Clause 1.1

This is not an exhaustive list, but were Sir Alan Moses to achieve these changes, then he might find he was much freer to maintain his independence of mind and judgment. It might also give IPSO some of the credibility it so sorely lacks at the moment.

Written by Martin Moore

May 27th, 2014 at 3:24 pm