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Newspapers are enjoying a surge in popularity, but they're struggling to survive
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Newspapers are enjoying a surge in popularity, but they're struggling to survive

Written by
Simon Jenkins
Published by
The Guardian
April 24th, 2020

Journalists are excelling in holding government to account over coronavirus. If the press suffers, so does democracy.

At last it is MPs who are asking questions. On Wednesday, after parliament’s long Easter holiday, the new Labour leader, Keir Starmer, asked five questions in the House of Commons. But the questions – about statistics, supplies, tests, care homes – have been around for weeks. Ministers have been challenged, comparisons drawn, mendacities exposed. Democratic accountability had functioned, sort of. But not by MPs, by the press.

I do not often bang the drum for my industry. Newspapers are institutionally smug. When the coronavirus mess is over, I doubt if the public will line the streets clapping journalists on their way, even if the way is to closure and bankruptcy. Other media have being doing their bit. I have valued the BBC’s More or Less and Briefing Room, and Channel 4’s scientists’ debate. But for a relentless daily alternative to Downing Street’s wooden press conferences, we must turn to the serious press.

If this week we were to rely on ministers and their in-house scientists on the question of wearing face masks, we would be clueless. If we had relied on government press statements on Covid-19 deaths, we would never have known they were just deaths in NHS hospitals, not care homes or any other homes. Independent epidemiologists disagreeing with Whitehall’s virus model from Imperial College had to challenge it in newspapers. It has been left to journalists, not MPs, to track down the chaos over protection equipment, key worker testing and the capital’s underused intensive care beds.

Of course, media exposure can be the problem as much as the solution. An addiction to human interest and bad news leaves worst-case scenarios and personal tragedies hogging the headlines. The BBC’s News at Ten has become unwatchable for its vox pops of random anguish, merely boosting the government’s message: obey or die. The promotion of fear gets people watching, but it never aids public understanding. Just now, the yawning chasm between known and unknown is too susceptible to the politics of terror.

With politicians in absentia, it has been journalists who have had to penetrate ministerial obfuscation. Only with the latest charts from the Office for National Statistics has the UK begun to appreciate what the Cambridge statistician David Spiegelhalter calls “the only unbiased comparison” of Covid-19 deaths against other and seasonal deaths. That is the figure for “excess mortality from all causes” against a five-year average. It is not happy reading, but at least it means something. No one mentioned it in parliament that I can see. It was in the press.

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As for the looming debate over “lives versus economics”, that too must be left to the media. The government is in intellectual lockdown over an exit strategy. Alone in the free world, it refuses discussion on the grounds – says the acting prime minister, Dominic Raab – that this would undermine its casually authoritarian policy. This cannot be right. With an economy more jeopardised than it has been since the second world war, and with parliament indolent, deep scrutiny of government strategy is essential. It is also psychologically important for the public. Information is reassurance. Debate is empowering, it allays fear with reason. If ministers want to impose extreme curbs on personal freedom, they must show personal trust.

Thomas Jefferson’s famous preference for “newspapers without a government”, if the alternative is government without newspapers, may be stretching a point. It remains strange that so vital a pillar of democracy as an independent and diverse press should be at the mercy of a private market. Over the years, that pillar has been damaged by chicanery, bias, vulgarity and sensation. Yet for all that and in most democracies, the market has more or less delivered. In the digital age, that is no longer guaranteed.

The newspaper industry is experiencing a bizarre phenomenon, a surge in online popularity amid a commercial meltdown. The Guardian, the Times, the Telegraph and the Financial Times have seen soaring online readership; in some cases it has doubled. The craving for reliable, edited, evidence-based news is clearly huge. But it is near impossible to monetise. The bulwark of the press, revenue from advertising and circulation, is plummeting. Newspapers are bearing the costs of good journalism; Google and Facebook are garnering the profits.

Many local newspapers appear unlikely to survive this crisis, while the outlook for printed papers of all sorts is grim. The predators half acknowledge this. The BBC is already subsidising some local newspapers whose market it has damaged through its local newsrooms. Google is offering grants to small- and medium-sized publications – tossing a liferaft to the ships it has torpedoed.

I dislike the idea of state support for an industry whose essence is independent news and debate. Depending on how government acts in the coming months, I still believe most newspapers can keep going. Ministers are already throwing crumbs of NHS advertising in their direction. Last year’s Cairncross report suggested substantial payments from digital platforms to the press organisations that supply them. This might well be part of a wider new order for digital regulation.

For the present, newspapers can only continue to bring peace of mind to those enduring the present agony. But if they start to disappear, they would not be just another victim of this government’s coronavirus policy. If they suffer, democracy suffers. Remember Betjeman: “It’s strange that those we miss the most/ Are those we took for granted.”

© The Guardian

In this article
A journalism crisis is threatening Canadian democracy.