ITN warns Ofcom of “news desert” without effective regulation

Preventing a digital “news desert” where audiences struggle to locate or have no access to high-quality news online must be a top priority in any future regulation of the public service broadcasting (PSB) ecology, ITN has told Ofcom.

Read ITN’s full submission to Ofcom’s consultation on the future of public service media

The UK’s largest commercial news provider and producer of ITV News, Channel 4 News and 5 News, outlined its views in response to Ofcom’s consultation: The Future of Public Service Media.

In it, ITN warns of a “news desert” whereby “significant numbers of people can afford only a limited number of subscription services, none of which carry regulated, accurate news”. Off the back of this warning, ITN calls for measures guaranteeing news is found quickly and easily, as well as sustainable funding for journalism.

At the heart of ITN’s response is the need to protect high-quality journalism as a genre of “paramount importance, but with commercial challenges” through actions that will ensure its relevance and availability in the future.

In December, Ofcom published the findings of its Small Screen: Big Debate review posing questions to the industry about how future regulation of PSBs should be shaped as the transition to digital viewing accelerates. As part of its findings Ofcom has proposed that PSBs should be called Public Service Media (PSM) providers.

Questions raised by the regulator included: the appropriate medium of delivery of PSM content, the role of quotas, what accountability looks like for PSM providers, how to guarantee their funding and whether the PSM accreditation should be opened up to new providers.

ITN underlines the importance of measures to protect news and current standards applied to it with reference to events that have taken place over the last year. It draws attention to the pandemic and the storming of the Capitol, highlighting the debate it has triggered about impartiality and the potential need to re-introduce the Fairness Doctrine in America. Abolished under former President Reagan, this regulation compelled US broadcasters to provide balanced coverage.

Without a clear regulatory framework to ensure the provision and visibility of PSM news in a digital environment, misinformation and disinformation will continue to thrive while regulated, accurate, professionally-produced news will become harder to find. The ability to access independent and impartial journalism underpins any functioning society”, the submission explains.

According to Ofcom research, audiences regard trusted, accurate news as the most important element of the PSB offer. In response, ITN argues that news should continue to be offered through linear bulletins with the objective of online services transitioning to become one of the core means of delivery, in line with changes in audience behaviour.

In order for this transition to take place, ITN proposes that there should be:

  • A spectrum of accountability online, whereby PSM providers are proactively regulated and operate to stricter requirements of impartiality and accuracy. Other organisations could sign-up to a lower level of accountability such as a minimum level of accuracy.
  • A means of guaranteeing that funding is re-directed to PSM genres, such as news, through fair value mechanisms. These could include; kite-marking of quality news providers and a codified framework to ensure negotiations between online platforms and PSM content providers are consistent.
  • Any new content provider seeking the status of a PSM should have to provide high quality, impartial news alongside other key genres identified by the regulator, while following a strict set of high standards and receiving appropriate funding. This may not be achievable if a significant number of additional PSM providers emerge.
  • Steps to find PSM content, particularly news, should be minimised through a ‘must-carry’ obligation and prominence of content regardless of the platform it appears on. ITN argues that audiences should be able to find trusted news in a digital environment as easily as switching on News at Ten.

The UK’s second largest broadcast news provider has also released a short film to mark one year since lockdown was announced and reporting on the pandemic. In it, health correspondents and editors of the news services speak about the role that journalism plays during a crisis.

Rachel Corp ITV News editor said in the video that ITV News has secured the highest viewing figures for 10 years “which does show that when there is a crisis, people are turning to trusted television news, and not just the BBC.”

Ben de Pear, Channel 4 News editor, added: “I don’t think there’s any replacement for broadcast news” and that online, “misinformation and fake news have been shown to be able to spread as quickly if not quicker than real news.”

ITN Chief Executive Officer Anna Mallett said: “ITN’s response to Ofcom’s consultation is based on the central premise that the quality of our journalism provides key social and democratic benefits. March marks one-year of life during the pandemic and ITN, with less than 400 journalists, has punched well above its weight in the broadcasting landscape. Any future system should seek to maintain the benefits provided to society from sustainably funded, quality, public service news provision’.

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