S&C recently appeared at the Byline Festival – described as ‘the only festival trying to change the world’ – organised by independent news platform and newspaper, Byline, in partnership with the Frontline Club for journalists. Editor in Chief Sarah Cheverton reports on the 4 day festival that showcases the need for independent journalism in the UK.
The Byline festival ran from 23-26th August at Pippingford Manor Park, East Sussex, featuring music, comedy, activism and journalism. The themes of this year’s festival included defending democracy, the power of journalism and race and representation, featuring the likes of Carole Cadwalladr, Gina Miller, Bonnie Greer and Hardeep Singh Kohli alongside music from The Feeling, Pussy Riot, Lowkey and Don Letts.
This was my first time at Byline Festival and – although sorry to miss Pompey’s homegrown Victorious Festival – I was far from disappointed and often pleasantly surprised. Most of all, the festival highlighted the importance of independent journalism, and the increasingly urgent need to find a sustainable future for the growing number of independent publishers across the UK.
I was part of a panel called Digital Killed the Journalism Star? The Future of News which also included a range of other independent local and national publishers, including Vanessa Baird, New Internationalist; Paul Hutchinson, Bedford Independent; and David Floyd of Social Spider, which publishes 3 community newspapers. Our chair was Jonathan Heawood, CEO of independent press regulator of IMPRESS. Together we discussed the challenges and opportunities facing independent news publishers in the UK, including the implications of the government’s recent review into the sustainability of journalism and the recent announcement of the government’s Future News Pilot Fund.
Independent journalism often stands in sharp contrast to the mainstream media – both local and national – much of which is dominated by a small number of companies. A report from the Media Reform Coalition this year revealed that:
…just three companies (News UK, Daily Mail Group and Reach) dominate 83% of the national newspaper market (up from 71% in 2015). When online readers are included, just five companies (News UK, Daily Mail Group, Reach, Guardian and Telegraph) dominate nearly 80% of the market, slightly up from our last report.
In the area of local news, just five companies (Gannett, Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror, Tindle and Archant) account for 80% of titles (back in 2015, six companies had the same share). Two companies have 46% of all commercial local analogue radio stations and two-thirds of all commercial digital stations.
Beyond the domination of the news landscape and a resulting lack of media plurality, the corporate domination of the news poses some serious challenges for democracy, as business interests can often conflict with the public interest. This is compounded by the lack of regulation of the corporate press following the government’s decision to scrap the planned second part of the Leveson Inquiry. The decision to scrap the second part of the inquiry – which had been promised to victims of the hacking scandal by then PM David Cameron – was described by Jacqui Hames (talking to the Independent), former police officer and Crimewatch presenter whose phone was hacked, as follows:
The government’s capitulation once again to newspaper owners and executives, over the cancellation of the inquiry before it had been allowed to finish its work, was an act of extraordinary cowardice.
Extensive criminal activity occurred at some of the country’s most powerful newspapers, yet not a single executive has been held accountable – and now the government will not even allow the agreed and promised public inquiry to finish.
For me, three events on the packed line-up at the Byline Festival captured the challenges facing journalism in the public interest today. Each speaker also highlighted the need for a more even playing field for independent publishers in the UK, in terms of funding and regulation, and greater diversity in representation of marginalised and missing groups in journalism itself, including for women, working class people, and ethnic minorities.
Politics is a Crime Scene: With Carole Cadwalladr and Nick Davies
One of the highlights of the first day was a conversation between Carole Cadwalladr and Nick Davies. Carole Cadwalladr is one of the journalists working on the Cambridge Analytica story and the role of political adverts on Facebook during the Brexit referendum campaign (recently featured in Netflix documentary The Great Hack, while Nick Davies is an award-winning investigative journalist and author of several books, including Flat Earth News, which ‘investigated the flow of falsehood, distortion and propaganda through mainstream news organisations and its devastating impact on the societies around them’.
Nick and Carole’s conversation highlighted the need to support investigative journalism in the public interest and the publications that support it, from mainstream news publishers and outlets, to independents. Speaking from their own experiences of reporting from the hacking scandal to Cambridge Analytica, both speakers highlighted the growing concentration of power among corporations, from digital giants like Facebook and Google to the corporate domination of the mainstream media.
Daniel Morgan Murder: The First Great Hack
The second event at the festival captured the impact of this concentration of power in a terrifying way was a session called the Daniel Morgan Murder: The First Great Hack. The murder of private investigator Daniel Morgan in 1987 has been described by the Guardian as a ‘tortuous story of alleged police and media corruption’ and this panel included Daniel’s brother, Alastair Morgan, journalist Kirsteen Knight, Byline co-founder Peter Jukes and crime writer Jake Arnott.
If you haven’t heard about this story, I’d recommend starting with the excellent podcast Untold, featuring Alastair, Kirsteen and Peter, or Peter and Alastair’s book of the same name. In the panel, Alastair explained how he decided to train as a journalist after the mainstream media failed to cover his brother’s murder and the numerous failed investigations to find his killer(s). Alastair spent years trying to get the mainstream media to cover the story, including the serious allegations of corruption levelled at the Metropolitan Police following Daniel’s murder. This struggle led Peter, Alastair and Kirsteen to create the podcast and later to publish a book of the case. At the panel, Jake Arnott explained he is now working with the trio to create a drama series that will help the public to understand the story and its implications for democracy and justice in the UK.
Diversity in Journalism and Broadcasting Panel
Lastly, I attended a panel on diversity in the media chaired by Byline News Editor, Hardeep Matharu and featuring journalist and founder of the Hacked Off campaign, Brian Cathcart, novelist and broadcaster Bonnie Greer, director of the Centre for Media Monitoring, Rizwana Hamid, and media analyst for Mend – an organisation that ‘helps to empower and encourage British Muslims within local communities to be more actively involved in British media and politics’, Zeeshan Ali.
The panel opened with statistics on diversity and media representation, which have strong implications for media coverage and perceptions of minority and marginalised groups in the UK. In 2018, NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) reported 90% of journalists are white, and Rizwana Hamid explained that the outcome of this absence has serious implications for reporting on ethnic minorities in the UK, including feeding a culture of hostility against minority groups like Muslims.
A 2017 study by Mend reports:
Since the events of 9/11 and 7/7, media coverage of Islam and Muslims has grown exponentially with the
volume of coverage increasing more than tenfold according to some studies. Unfortunately, this increase
in coverage has been overwhelmingly negative with Muslims regularly portrayed in frames that present
them as homogeneous, threatening, and incompatible with Britain’s values and society.
Bonnie Greer explained how the lack of diversity in the UK mainstream media is compounded by the concentration of ownership, as highlighted by the Media Reform Coalition report above. Newspapers, Bonnie explained, ‘are a rich man’s game’ and the UK mainstream media is, as a result, somewhat of a closed shop, ‘comprised generally of people who know each other’, which makes it harder for minority and marginalised groups to enter. The solution to these issues is not as simple as increasing diversity in national and local newsrooms – though it’s a great start. Bonnie Greer highlighted that the culture of newsrooms must shift at the same time, to give more editorial control to diverse journalists.
Zeeshan Ali from Mend highlighted a theme that came up repeatedly throughout the festival: that the UK media’s system of regulation for the news industry – or arguably, the lack of it – is a huge problem. Most of the mainstream media is regulated by IPSO, a self-regulatory body representing many local newspapers and most nationals set up following the Hacking Scandal and the government’s Leveson Inquiry. However critics of IPSO feel the body is toothless and fails to adequately hold news outlets to account, including the Hacked Off Inquiry, which describes IPSO as ‘both unwilling and unable to act’ in a 2018 report.
An even playing field for independent journalism
Each of these panels highlighted the importance of pluralistic, diverse and independently-regulated journalism in the UK as central to protecting investigative journalism that aims to shine a light on injustice and hold powerful interests to account. Yet the playing field for independent news publishers at a national and local level remains woefully uneven. Public funding from the BBC license fee and private funding from tech giants like Facebook and Google remains concentrated in the hands of corporate news organisations, with limited opportunities for independent publishers – from the likes of OpenDemocracy and the New Internationalist to community news platforms like Star & Crescent – to access funds. At the same time, the growing number of independent publishers signed up to independent press regulator IMPRESS are regulated to a higher standard than the national press, as IMPRESS is the only regulator to have met the standards outlined in the Leveson Inquiry.
The Byline Festival is both terrifying and inspiring: terrifying in highlighting the current limitations of the UK’s mainstream press to empower our democracy, and inspiring in showcasing and celebrating the achievements of independent journalism in the UK. Most of all, it reveals and empowers a growing movement of passionate journalists, publishers and audiences who are keen to safeguard public interest journalism and the vital role it plays in a healthy society.
My verdict? The Byline Festival is a must-add to the calendar of anyone interested in the safeguarding of UK democracy in a time of rapid and controversial political and technological change. I’ll definitely be back next year and I hope to see lots of Pompey people there.
The Byline Festival 2020 takes place at Pippingford Park, West Sussex on 28-31st August. Hyper early-bird tickets are available now at £55 for all three days until 30th September 2019 over at the website.
Find out more
Media Reform Coalition: Who Owns the UK Media in 2019?
IMPRESS: CEO Jonathan Heawood reveals the story behind IMPRESS, the UK’s officially recognised press regulator
Hacked Off: IPSO: Toughest Regulator in the Western World?
Carole Cadwalladr: TED Talk, Facebook’s role in Brexit and the threat to democracy
Untold: Daniel Morgan Murder: the Most Investigated Murder in British History – Pitch for the Podcast
The Untold Podcast: If you haven’t heard the story of the murder of Daniel Morgan, ask yourself, why?