Are Facebook and Google a threat to a free press?

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Looking back, the invoices should have given it away. But, then, The Pool was always late paying Marisa Bate’s freelance fees.

“There was mismanagement for a long time, especially financially,” says Bate, who left a staff job at The Pool to escape the chaos of the women’s digital publication, where commissioning editors weren’t even given budgets to manage their freelance writers.

“I assumed there was cash, they were just chaotic as per usual.”

Other signs confirmed her impression. In December, The Pool announced it was moving to an expensive WeWork in Moorgate. But, by mid-January, Bate’s invoices still hadn’t been paid, and rumours swirled about the title’s ability to survive.

On 31 January, the email Bate had been dreading arrived: The Pool was going into liquidation. Its 24 staffers joined hundreds of journalists from BuzzFeed, Vice and HuffPost and became suddenly “available for commissions”. For Bate, already in that position, the news came as a horrible reminder of her fragility.

The Pool left her with £9,000 in unpaid fees. To pay her bills, she was forced to wipe out savings she’d spent years building.

“My instant reaction was a sick feeling in my stomach,” she says. “And I was angry, because I’d been placed in this situation and the law wasn’t going to protect me.” In the queue of creditors, freelancers came last.

This is the freelance life – a life journalists are increasingly being forced into. In 2007, according to the Office for National Statistics, there were 23,000 full-time front-line journalists in the UK. By 2017, that number had fallen to 17,000.

At a moment when accurate, careful reporting and accounting of power are more important than ever, journalists are increasingly precarious and vulnerable. There’s no app for them, but they are part of the gig economy all the same.

“It concerns me, because we will have no free journalism, no free press, no criticism of those in power, if we don’t have media that is well funded, that can employ qualified journalists,” says Margrethe Vestager, the powerful European commissioner for competition. “With fake news… the role is getting bigger, but the risk is there are fewer people to do it.”

Vestager, like Bate, identifies advertising as the problem. Ads are moving online at an extremely rapid rate, but the money isn’t going to digital publications. Instead, it’s funnelling straight into the pockets of Facebook and Google.

The figures are familiar, but bear repeating all the same. According to analysis produced for Sky News by research firm eMarketer, fully 61% of UK media advertising goes to one of these two companies.

“They are a de facto duopoly,” says Vestager. “From a European perspective, the fact that we have a number of different national markets complicates matters, because then you have strong players in the national markets, it’s not Google and Facebook.

“But the pattern, the general pattern is a clear trend towards Google and Facebook taking all the advertising revenue.”

Does that mean she’ll be opening a competition case? “It might be something we’d look into, and start asking questions in a number of areas. [But] we are not opening a case right now.”

Even if she did, it would likely take years.

So what is the answer to the conundrum of journalism? The government’s Cairncross Review is examining the sustainability of journalism in the UK. If it is radical, it may recommend some kind of state funding.

But who is to say that journalists deserve rescuing where retailers, or taxi drivers, do not? Journalists can say they’re essential to democracy; but then so is the livelihood of ordinary workers. Democracy runs on trust, and trust runs on security. Without it, nothing is collectively possible.

So perhaps the first step for the government would be to guarantee the rights of freelancers and contract workers, allowing them to get their bills paid and take holiday and parental leave.

That’s what Bate wants, now she’s recovered from her shock. Like any good freelancer, her first reaction was self-chastisement. “I felt a lot shame and embarrassment,” she says. “What didn’t I do? What should I have done more? I’ve had to realise I’m not the guilty party.”

“I should have stormed in and demanded payment, but when you’re relying on them for money it’s very difficult to jeopardise that. In a relationship that’s critical not just to my economic situation but also to my career, there’s this massive power imbalance.”

That power imbalance is inimical to not just to good journalism, but to a good society. Addressing it might not save the media, but it could be a step in the right direction.

(c) Sky News 2019: Are Facebook and Google a threat to a free press?

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