NMA calls for investigation into Google, Facebook and the digital advertising supply chain to combat fake news

Ashley Highfield
Ashley Highfield

A free and fearless press is society’s single best defence against fake news but action is needed to ensure the news media sector’s quality, agenda-setting journalism can survive and thrive in the digital environment, the News Media Association (NMA) said today.

In its submission to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into fake news, the NMA calls for an urgent investigation into the impact of Google, Facebook and a digital advertising supply chain described by the world’s largest advertiser Procter&Gamble as “murky at best, fraudulent at worst”.

The only effective way to tackle fake news is for genuine news publishers to continue their important work of investigative journalism, reporting and fact-checking

“News media publishers are by far the biggest investors in original news content, accounting for 58 per cent of the total UK investment,” said NMA chairman Ashley Highfield (Chief Executive of Johnston Press).

“But the digital supply chain rewards the distributors of content, not the originators. Government and regulators cannot ignore forever the impact of the Google-Facebook duopoly on our media landscape.”

The growth of programmatic advertising has resulted in a chronic lack of transparency with advertisers, including the government, left in the dark about how their money is being spent and their ads inadvertently appearing on fake news sites and worse, as reported recently in The Times.

The term “fake news” has been seized on by politicians and anti-press lobby groups in the UK and abroad with an agenda to silence the press and shut down debate on important issues, posing a greater threat to freedom of speech, an informed electorate and democracy than fake news itself.

“The Committee’s inquiry is a timely opportunity to concentrate minds on the immense value to society and democracy of genuine news,” Mr Highfield said. “But it is also necessary to ensure the very people the press holds to account - those in authority - don’t cry ‘fake news’ when they simply disagree with a story or don’t like a headline.”

The NMA said that, although audiences in the UK had so far proved more resilient to fake news than those in the US because of the UK’s robust news media sector, the diversion of digital advertising revenues to Google and Facebook away from the content creators could create the conditions for a fake news industry to thrive here.

Mr Highfield said: “The system works very well for fake news operators – and very badly for real news publishers. The fake news operators are not journalists in any meaningful sense; they act without regard for accuracy or defamation to invent content sensational enough to harness the full potential of the Facebook or Google algorithms.”

The share of advertising that real news publishers receive from Facebook and Google traffic does not come close to covering the investment they make in creating the news content. Unlike the fake news farms of Macedonia, a little does not go a long way for newspaper publishers who pay for professional journalists, in-house lawyers, subscriptions to a regulatory body and all the other costs associated with producing journalism to a professional standard.

The NMA called for action to ensure that Google, Facebook and other platforms live up to their responsibilities but stressed that it was opposed to the introduction of any new laws which would impact on free speech or create wider liabilities or new restrictions for traditional media.

The NMA recommended that the CMS Committee:

Call witnesses from Google, Facebook, ISBA, major advertisers and agencies and the Cabinet Office to understand developments in digital advertising and its link to the rise of fake news;

Call on the Government to ask Ofcom and/or the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to examine the impact of Google, Facebook and other platforms on the media landscape;

Call for a CMA investigation into the digital advertising market to examine the dominant position of Google and Facebook, the impact they have had on other media players and the implications for consumers and advertisers;

Call on the Information Commissioner’s Office to examine whether Google and Facebook are in a dominant position in relation to the collection, aggregation, processing and sale of the personal data of their users;

Call for a regulatory review of the status of Google and Facebook, whether they should continue to be considered mere intermediaries, and what additional responsibilities they should bear;

Ensure that the Government’s Digital Strategy for the UK is fair to all participants and enhances competitiveness while continuing to protect the public.

“Instead of weakening the press, government and regulators should concentrate on combating fake news with a renewed emphasis on the critical importance of genuine news media to democracy,” Mr Highfield said. “The only effective way to tackle fake news is for genuine news publishers to continue their important work of investigative journalism, reporting and fact-checking.”