The Scottish Government should give £9 million to help set up a new independent agency to prevent the “collapse” of public interest journalism, according to a report commissioned by ministers.
A 14-strong working group of journalists from across the industry has urged the establishment of a Scottish Public Interest Journalism Institute. It should give out grants to support “a diverse, pluralistic and sustainable Scottish public interest media sector”, they said.
The working group has also recommended changes to allow news providers to register as charities, and it said community groups should have powers to take over local news publishers in danger of closing. There should also be a voucher scheme for young people to access public interest journalism, the group said.
The report has been welcomed by independent news providers, newspaper publishers and the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). The Scottish Government said it would respond to the recommendations after considering the report.
The Scottish Public Interest Journalism Working Group was set up by the former culture secretary, Fiona Hyslop, in January 2021, following a campaign by the NUJ’s Edinburgh Freelance Branch. The group’s purpose was to “consider the long-term sustainability of public interest journalism in Scotland and recommend ways to ensure its ongoing resilience and relevance.”
The group’s members included executives from major news publishers such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Scotland, Dundee-based DC Thomson and the Scottish Newspaper Society. There were also people from small independent publishers, including The Ferret, Greater Govanhill magazine and Shetland News, as well as three NUJ representatives.
In their programme for government 2021-22, published in September, Scottish ministers made a commitment to “ensure the long-term sustainability and resilience of public interest journalism in Scotland” and to “listen and respond to the recommendations of the Public Interest Journalism Working Group.”
The group’s report has now been published by the Scottish Government. News publishers’ ability to meet the needs of their audiences would diminish “without urgent intervention”, the report warned.
The sector was shrinking, it said. “Staff numbers have declined sharply, offices have closed, editions and titles have merged, and freelance income has declined.”
The report argued that a lack of public interest journalism to hold authorities to account can have “catastrophic consequences”. It pointed out that the 2017 Grenfell tower fire, which claimed 72 lives, was preceded by a sharp decline in the number of local journalists.
“The danger of a depleted media landscape remains, in which local stories go unreported or are not followed up, and national publications are less able to sustain the range of specialist correspondents that are essential for scrutiny and democratic accountability,” the report said.
The digital revolution had also seen the rise of “fake news” which at worst was “hostile to democracy”, the report added. It was “essential that open societies find ways of supporting genuine journalistic activity that keep the public properly informed.”
It urged ministers to grasp “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” to build on Scotland’s proud 250-year history of journalism. “The alternative is to watch this tradition collapse, as publishers struggle to make ends meet, journalists are forced to seek other employment, and audiences are swamped by fake news.”
The report highlighted eight examples from other countries in which democratic governments had intervened to support public interest journalism. In New Zealand the government gave £29 million (NZ$55m) in 2021 to fund an arms-length body for three years.
The working group’s main recommendation was that Scottish ministers should invest less than a third of that — £3m a year for three years — to launch a Scottish Public Interest Journalism Institute (SPIJI). The aim would be for the institute to become self-funding in the long term.
SPIJI is described as “a high-profile independent body that draws on a wide range of resources to develop public interest journalism for Scotland, co-ordinating new and existing initiatives and strategically administering grant funding to support a diverse, pluralistic and sustainable Scottish public interest media sector.”
As well as grant-making, its remit would cover fundraising, research, training, diversity and media literacy. It could seek a partnership with a Scottish university, the report suggested.
The working group made seven other recommendations. One urged the Scottish Government and its charity regulator to take steps to enable non-profit public interest news providers to register as charities, or to have a similar legal status.
Another recommendation was that media literacy should be embedded in the school curriculum. Ministers should also consider launching “a voucher scheme for young people aged 15-19 to access public interest journalism free of charge.”
The working group urged the Scottish Government to “examine the feasibility of introducing provisions like those in the 2003 Land Reform (Scotland) Act, to give community groups the scope to take over a local news publication that is otherwise in danger of closing.”
Other recommendations were for SPIJI and Audit Scotland to conduct annual audits of public sector advertising, marketing and public notices. “The Scottish Government should invest no less than 25 per cent of its central advertising and marketing budget with public interest news providers,” the report said.
It urged the Scottish Government to encourage giant digital companies, such as Google and Facebook, to support the establishment of SPIJI. Ministers should also “engage with the UK Government to create tax incentives for businesses to advertise with public interest news providers”.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism hoped that the Scottish Government would see the value in supporting initiatives that would allow a “rigorous and pluralistic” news media to thrive. “We think this is a real chance for Scotland to lead on this at a time that public interest media, a key pillar of democracy, is under threat globally,” said the bureau’s Rachel Hamada, a member of the working group as well as a journalist director of The Ferret.
“I’m particularly hopeful that proposals for a new independent grant-making body could enable the development of a news media sector that is truly representative of Scottish communities, their diversity and their news needs.”
According to Joyce McMillan, chair of the NUJ’s Edinburgh Freelance Branch and a member of the working group, the report “represents a powerful consensus among the very diverse media interests represented within the group.”
She added: “NUJ members will now play an active part in ensuring the implementation of the working group’s recommendations, which we believe are of vital importance not only to journalists, but to all those who care about our democratic future.”
The Scottish Newspaper Society, which represents traditional news publishers, described the group’s proposals as “ambitious and innovative” but also deliverable. They could put Scotland “at the forefront of the international quest to secure a sustainable future for public interest journalism,” said the society’s director, John McLellan, also a member of the working group.
“Scotland has a justifiable reputation for brilliant journalism, not for its own sake but for the benefits fearless, independent reporting brings to all parts of society. The technological revolution has created significant challenges which the sector cannot solve on its own, but we believe solutions are at hand,” he said.
“If fully implemented, our recommendations will help ensure a viable future for independent public scrutiny of decision making and democratic accountability in Scotland at local, regional and national levels.”
The culture secretary, Angus Robertson replaced Fiona Hyslop after the May 2021 election. “A strong and vibrant news sector is essential to a well-functioning democracy,” he said.
“I’d like to thank the working group for the recommendations which we’ll consider carefully before responding.”
Cover image thanks to iStock/Farknot_Architect.