Iain Duncan Smith responds to the Cairncross review into the sustainability of high quality journalism

12th February 2019

In response to the Government statement on the publication of the Cairncross review into the sustainability of high quality journalism, Iain Duncan Smith calls on the Government to look at the role of the BBC as a subsidised publisher and the impact it has on other organisations that do not receive money and also the need to make large social media companies responsible for their content.

Following up on what my right hon. and learned Friend said, not only was Gordon Banks the greatest goalkeeper that the world has ever seen, but he was my childhood hero, which is more important.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. The review is overdue and most welcome, and I want to make two particular points about it. First, it is absolutely right to ask for the BBC to be looked at. If a subsidised organisation is able to become a publisher, which it was not prior to the arrival of the internet, then it is now in the same space as others that do not benefit from such a subsidy and have to earn money. That has caused a problem, and we must look at how the BBC operates given the amount of money that it receives and at what damage or problems that causes.

Secondly, I agree with the deputy Leader of the Opposition, the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Tom Watson), that the elephant in the room is the social media companies. Adam Smith makes it clear in “The Wealth of Nations” that this kind of monopoly cartel is damaging to people as individuals and to the functioning of a democratic society. At some point, social media companies will need to be broken up, and the way to do that is to make them publishers and responsible for everything on their sites. Just watch what will happen after that.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. On the BBC, there is a balance here. It is right to ask Ofcom to consider whether further measures ought to be taken to ensure that the BBC is using its position for good, and it is important to at least ask whether it is facilitating good local content or effectively squeezing out good local providers. However, that is a matter for Ofcom. I repeat that the review also rightly praises the BBC, and the local democracy reporting service should be praised and expanded.

Turning to social media platforms, my right hon. Friend will know that the Government are engaged in several overlapping pieces of work, and the online harms White Paper will address many of the issues he describes. There is an ongoing question as to whether it is appropriate to apply the label of publisher to online companies. However, I am less interested in the label and more interested in what those companies do, how we ensure that they fulfil their responsibilities to the users of their services and then, of course, what should happen if they do not fulfil those responsibilities.

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