Cairncross Submission 4/4: What are the information needs of UK citizens?

This is the fourth of four suggestions I made to the Cairncross Review in September 2018. [Here are the firstsecond and third.]

The information ecosystem for citizens in the UK is largely terra incognita

In the UK, we do not know what information our citizens want or need, and how these wants or needs are met. We have data on what they consume, on which services, but we don’t know or understand more holistically what this information environment actually means to them. The work of Martin Moore and Gordon Ramsay to document the decline of local news provision, as with work to document and expose ‘news deserts’ in the USA and the Netherlands, goes some way to showing the failures of the system, but not the broader systemic challenges citizens face in accessing information relevant to their lives and rights.

The DCMS framing of this Review began with the press and high-quality journalism, and the impacts on publishers and consumers, but this should expand to how our citizens’ information needs are met by the overall information ecosystem. This includes journalism of various kinds, but it also includes a wide range of other actors who produce and disseminate quality information to the public (including consumer rights organisations, access to information organisations, civic tech groups, and many others) and which helps them participate in civic life and our democracy.

This also finds backing in international freedom of expression standards. In paragraph 44 of its General Comment 34, the UN’s Human Rights Council stated:

“Journalism is a function shared by a wide range of actors, including professional full-time reporters and analysts, as well as bloggers and others who engage in forms of self-publication in print, on the internet or elsewhere…”

And, as noted by NGO Article 19 in The Right to Blog:

The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (COE) has adopted an equally broad definition of the term ‘journalist’ [as “any natural or legal person who is regularly or professionally engaged in the collection and dissemination of information to the public via any means of mass communication.”]

It has also called on member states to:

Adopt a new, broad notion of media which encompasses all actors involved in the production and dissemination, to potentially large numbers of people, of content (for example information, analysis, comment, opinion, education, culture, art and entertainment in text, audio, visual, audiovisual or other form) and applications which are designed to facilitate interactive mass communication (for example social networks) or other content-based large- scale interactive experiences (for example online games), while retaining (in all these cases) editorial control or oversight of the contents.

The UK has never had, for example, a Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, such as the Knight Foundation funded in the USA ten years ago, and which spurred the FCC to undertake a comprehensive review of its own. Knight’s latest commission is looking into the erosion of trust in US democratic institutions, including the press. Looking at the news and information environment from the perspective of an individual citizen, or of local communities, as Knight and its partners did in the early 2000s, changes the parameters of the debate from worries about the preservation of an legacy environment, to the opportunities and challenges inherent in the new environment. These opportunities are there in the UK too and have been addressed in small parts by Carnegie UKNestaCo-operatives UK, for example, and by a number of academics, but these rarely if ever link up or scale up.

Some of the most progressive, innovative and transformative initiatives in the US media environment have stemmed from the Knight Foundation’s prescient initiative and those of its partners, that information is the lifeblood of healthy communities, that journalism, new technologies, broadband, libraries, and other forms of communication all form part of that, that different communities have different communications needs at different times, and that the market cannot adequately service those needs without intervention, incentives, catalytic processes.

The number of philanthropic funders explicitly taking an ecosystem approach is small, but growing. In the US, the Knight Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the Geraldine R Dodge Foundation, and the Wyncote Foundation have applied this approach specifically in the domain of media and information ecosystems. Large intermediaries from the media development world, like Internews and the erstwhile Panos, have taken this approach. In Europe, there are few examples, beyond Google’s DNI Fund and Adessium. In South Africa, the SAMIP program (set up by OSF, Omidyar, MDIF) also has aspects of an ecosystem approach. [In the UK, Doteveryone is doing imaginative and integrative work that could also be highly relevant.]

While it is right that there should be — because of the specific market and social conditions that beset the journalism industry in the UK today — a journalism-focused Review in the first instance, I would argue that one of the recommendations from it should be that the UK needs a formal multi-stakeholder commission into the information needs of communities, and how they can be better met. The costs of this could be met by a mixture of public, philanthropic and corporate funds.


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