An “Institute for Public Interest News” is a Very Bad Idea

The Cairncross Review published yesterday recommends the creation of a news quango, the “Institute for Public Interest News”. Cairncross says it would work like the Arts Council, channeling public and private funding to “those parts of the industry it deemed most worthy of support”. It is a good analogy, the Arts Council takes taxpayers’ money and spends it on things most taxpayers don’t want, like opera. Public interest news is often something the public have little interest in.

The supposed problem is that local papers are going to the wall because advertising has dried up and shifted to Google and Facebook. This is apparently a threat to local democracy because local politics goes unreported. The Institute for Public Interest News would fund high quality public interest news. No doubt this will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions, though this was unspecified…

According to the report, the quango would be

“a dedicated body [which] could amplify efforts to ensure the future sustainability of public-interest news, working in partnership with news publishers and the online platforms, as well as bodies such as Nesta, Ofcom, the BBC and academic institutions.”

Hold on, don’t we already have a dedicated body, with billions in public funds, dedicated to public-interest news? It is called the BBC.

Why do we need another public body? Isn’t the BBC actually part of the reason independent local journalism is dying? The expansion of the BBC into local radio and covering local affairs online is killing off independent private sector journalism. The billions in revenue that the BBC has supports 46 local radio stations and the most visited news website in Britain, how can local newspapers compete with that? That the BBC has started funding a “Local Democracy Reporting Service” is an admission that it is part of the problem. The BBC’s lavish funding enables it to suck up the audience that otherwise would go to independent news sources, thus undermining their viability.

State mandated and funded “public interest news” is a dangerous idea, even if it didn’t degenerate into propaganda it is unlikely that it would ever bite the hand that feeds it. The state should stay out of the business of journalism.


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