Frances Cairncross – written evidence (DAD0068)


I am replying to the questions below on the basis of the contents and evidence to the Cairncross Review. I have generally not gone beyond the evidence received by the Review. I would urge the committee to read Chapter 5 of the Review, which tackles some of the issues below.



1. How has digital technology changed the way that democracy works in the UK and has this been a net positive or negative effect?


There is relatively little firm evidence. Work by Dr Martin Moore and Gordon Ramsay has drawn attention to the speed with which local and regional publishers are closing or consolidating geographically. The only serious attempt to measure the impact of this trend on democratic debate that the Review saw was a thesis by Dr Rachel Howells on the impact of retreating news coverage in Port Talbot. See There is also some research by American academics which is quoted in the Review.


2. How have the design of algorithms used by social media platforms shaped democratic debate? To what extent should there be greater accountability for the design of these algorithms?


The Review argued (Recommendation 3) for a "news quality obligation" which would put the online platforms' efforts to improve their readers' news experience under regulatory supervision. In particular, a regulator would gather information on the steps online platforms are taking to improve people's awareness of the origins and quality of the news they read.



3. What role should every stage of education play in helping to create a healthy, active, digitally literate democracy?


The Review recommended that government should develop a media literacy strategy, working with Ofcom (which has a statutory duty to promote media literacy). It argued that it was particularly important to give adults, as well as children, media literacy skills. It pointed to evidence that many adults struggle to assess the reliability of the news they see online.


Online campaigning

4. Would greater transparency in the online spending and campaigning of political groups improve the electoral process in the UK by ensuring accountability, and if so what should this transparency look like?


The Review did not examine this issue, or the issues raised in questions 5-11 or 13-14.


Technology and democratic engagement

12. How could the Government better support the positive work of civil society

organisations using technology to facilitate engagement with democratic processes?


The Review advocated the creation of an Institute for Public Interest News, which would work to ensure the future sustainability of public-interest news. A grant of £2m has recently been awarded to Nesta ( to explore ways to ensure that communities have access to "reliable and accurate news about the issues that matter most to them".