Comment: Three steps to fix journalism

'The media is Britain's last truly unreformed industry'
'The media is Britain's last truly unreformed industry'

For once in a lifetime, the searchlight is turned inwards. We have a chance now to improve our industry.

By Ian Dunt

Journalism suffers from two distinct problems. First: how do you make the public aware of the machine which makes the public aware of things? Second: how do you deal with the fact that journalism is a prime example of market failure? There are solutions, but they require radical thinking and wholesale reform of the industry. But then, if we don’t start talking about these things now, when will we?

One: Formalise the industry

The media is Britain's last truly unreformed industry. Most of the best jobs go unadvertised. Talented young journalists regularly lose out to family relations of existing staff. Career progress is more likely to result from getting on well at a party as it is by your CV.

This is partly an after-effect of the necessarily informal arrangements of the profession. After all, the cultivation of contacts is the lifeblood of newsgathering, making a chat in a bar as important to a working day as typing at a desk. That's bound to have repercussions to working arrangements.

It's also the natural by-product of a resolutely unreconstructed industry, however. The reason it remains unreconstructed is because the tool required to put public pressure on the industry – the media – will not shine a light upon itself. Even now, the Sun acts like a broadcast on North Korean television, resolutely ignoring the situation all around it. It’s laughable, pathetic and proves all the worst suspicions of the public.

Take the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), which is populated by serving members of the industry it is regulating. When Rupert Murdoch suggested yesterday that Rebekah Brooks lead the investigation into herself, he was merely taking the lead from the regulatory body the newspaper thrived under. The consequence of stepping outside of the PCC, as the Express did recently, are precisely zero. Actually, it makes more sense, because you are no longer subject to its rules. If the media found such a situation elsewhere, it would kick up a storm, demand some heads, and build the political pressure to the point that something was done.

Now the spotlight is turned inwards with an inquiry on the way. Self-regulation is still the only suitable way to organise the press in a free society, because any other body - especially government – will be unable to stop itself interfering. But the commission must be diversified, composed of 51% former journalists and editors and then filled out with other professionals and experts, from politics to the law. It should also include members of the public and be able to enforce its investigatory process and its subsequent findings.

Retractions must be published in the same place and with the same priority as the original news story. Contempt of court should be more thoroughly enforced, as attorney general Dominic Grieve did recently in the case of Christopher Jefferies, the landlord arrested in the case of Jo Yeates, who was destroyed in the press basically because he was mildly eccentric. This should be the start of a robust response which prevents any further decline in standards. All work opportunities must be fully advertised with a transparent selection process.

Two: Deal with the internship question

Full disclosure:, like every other media outlet (and most policy units and think tanks and political parties) uses unpaid interns. Extra disclosure: I was an unpaid intern myself earlier in my career, at several sites and newspapers, before securing a paid position.

By forcing new entrants to the profession to work for free for extensive periods of time, usually in major cities where rents are high, we significantly reduce the spectrum of people working in journalism. This reduces the quality of the product by narrowing the talent pool, thereby worsening the sales decline. It is particularly problematic because it discriminates against people from low-income backgrounds and therefore prioritises white, middle-class, university-educated men, like myself. That narrows the priorities of journalists and prevents them representing the country accurately. It also tilts the political balance to the right.

Regulation of the internship system, as unions demand, is not the answer. The internship system is partly a result of the informal nature of the industry, but more specifically can be blamed on its economic requirements. Banning unpaid internships now would not create any new jobs. It would just deprive already struggling outlets of labour and prevent many young recruits getting their foot in the door. The solution to the internship problem is to solve journalism's income problem.

Three: Nationalise

Journalism is uniquely unsuited to the private sector. For one, it is a consistent market failure. That is: a social good which does not fit with individual payment decisions.

This used to be less of a problem. Newspapers would always treat investigative journalism or foreign correspondents as loss-leaders. While not that many people actually read the pieces (certainly not enough to justify the cost in terms of manpower and time) advertisers would pay to be associated with something which had the requisite gravitas. The internet has changed that, by providing much more accurate information on reading habits. In the old days the only customer information you could get came through newspaper sales figures and letters to the editor. Now we know which page you landed on, where you came from and how long you stayed. The popularity of celebrity-based stories and pictures of kittens are now clear to everyone, from the news editor to the advertiser, and those stories require very little money or manpower to produce. In fact, all they require is someone to sit by a desk for 15 minutes.

The economics don't work and the situation is getting worse as we start to treat news as a product not worth paying for – an unfortunate consequence of the transition online. This is basic market failure – a social good (truth-seeking investigative journalism, thorough foreign coverage) which the market is increasingly failing to provide.

Even if the market failure did not exist, the social importance of the media, its ability to influence the public opinions and therefore the political process, means it should not be subject to the anarchy of the private sector. Constitutionally, the capacity to purchase does not explain why one human should be able to spread his or her viewpoint any more than someone else. Newspaper proprietors often exert no influence at all on the printed product, especially if it is performing well, but it should be plain to anyone that the British media is hopelessly tilted to the right in a way which does not reflect the opinions of the British public, whose voting habits bear little resemblance to media output. David Cameron's failure to secure a majority is testament to that.

Before you worry about state-sponsored media and all the authoritarian overtones it conjures up, consider for a moment that the BBC is, by a significant lead, the most trusted news source for the British public. It holds a very high position in the eyes of people overseas well.

There's no reason that state-sponsored outlets must be impartial. It would be perfectly possible to provide papers, television programmes and radio with a political slant and then offer further resourcing on the basis of popularity, mimicking market mechanisms but without the obstruction of start-up costs and market failures provided by the private sector.

The media is significantly different to any other sector of the economy. Its political and social value is far too substantive to tolerate the imbalances imposed upon it by the free market. Its unique constitutional role paradoxically creates a situation where it is the last subject of its own values. Since the phone hacking scandal first broke several years ago, many of us have been arguing that we should clean up our own backyard before others clean it up for us. We've now lost that advantage. We've entered a rare period where the searchlight is turned inwards, in the form of an impending public inquiry. It's incumbent upon journalists to take a good hard look at their industry and adopt a leading role in the discussion around its future.


Load in comments
Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.