Some time soon, if there is no unforeseen delay, Dame Frances Cairncross will report to the government and the public on whether more money can be found to support ‘high quality journalism’ in this country, and how it should be spent.
No one can deny there is a problem, indeed the scale of the crisis has been vividly demonstrated in the past few days as Buzzfeed and Huffington Post, both of them created and designed for the internet age, announced large-scale job cuts.
New sources of money need to be found, but here is the rub: if it is a subsidy of any kind – and that would include any cash squeezed out of Google and Facebook – who should get it? Because it certainly can’t be allowed to go to the Murdoch press, the Mail, the Mirror and the Telegraph, all of them bastions of low quality journalism and mired in corruption, abuse of the public and even criminality.
Nor can there be any question of giving money to the three corporations (Reach, Johnston and Newsquest) that dominate the local and regional press. For a decade and more they have banked big profits while closing hundreds of titles and sacking thousands of journalists.
Yet the Cairncross Review was established by the government with the manifest intention of syphoning money to its close friends in these corporations – principally, we must assume, to ensure their continuing political support. That is why the panel was packed with a cast of characters who might have been (and very possibly were) handpicked by those same corporations. (The Guardian also has its nose in this trough.)
They have visited Brussels and the United States, toured the UK and consulted experts and analysts with a range of viewpoints. So what will they recommend?
My guess is that Dame Frances is under pressure from the panel and from ministers to steer clear of anything requiring early legislation. Our hapless government lacks the bandwidth and clout to pilot anything of that kind through Parliament and it knows that the most recent measure on a press-related matter (cancellation of Leveson 2) barely scraped through the Commons.
Moreover, ministers and press bosses will be anxious to avoid public debate on anything that might look like public subsidies for the Sun and the Mail. The Sun: serially dishonest and thuggish, and also now accused in open court of hacking phones despite a decade of denials. The Mail: Bermuda-owned, shamed by Wikipedia and Microsoft as untrustworthy, and also serially dishonest and entangled in new hacking allegations.
Nor would there be an easy ride for the big regional and local companies. If the public does not know it already, they would discover the vast difference between their prized local papers, with their hardworking, underpaid staffs, and those lumbering, greedy corporations, waiting for the right moment to close them down.
There are, however, things that might be done without votes in Parliament. For one, Dame Frances could broker some new deal between the big internet players and the press corporations. The former can easily afford it, but there are big problems with this, to which I return below.
And it is always possible plunder the BBC again. Already our licence fee money is being syphoned off to fund ‘local democracy reporters’ who help fill the news pages of Reach, Newsquest and Johnston. And predictably job losses since the scheme began have comfortably exceeded the 150 gained by robbing the BBC. In any case, the licence fee is for the BBC and nobody can say it does not need it.
What should Dame Frances recommend? What can be done? We could start by acknowledging that trustworthy news journalism is vital to our society, as vital in its way as a health service and decent roads, and it follows that if it can’t pay for itself then society should be prepared to pay for it.
Bear in mind, however, that the public is already helping. Every year, on our behalf, the Exchequer waives hundreds of millions in revenue from the news industry as a consequence of the zero-rating of print newspapers for VAT. That is a very big subsidy – and the return is not good. The newspaper companies that are the chief beneficiaries of this largesse are demonstrably not, on the whole, providing trustworthy journalism and their general conduct is shocking.
Any new subsidy must go exclusively to support genuine ‘high quality journalism’ – meaning journalism that is challenging and informative without being unethical, untrustworthy and harmful to the innocent. Obviously it is not for government ministers to pick and choose who gets money – that would be corrupt, and a form of censorship – so the situation cries out for a body that is independent of government and of the news providers.
Such a body exists: the Press Recognition Panel. And better still, all the mechanisms are in place that are needed to guarantee that any public subsidy – or bonus from Big Tech – is channelled to journalists who have decent standards. The test should be a simple one: only organisations that meet the Leveson standards of regulation as overseen by the Press Recognition Panel should be eligible to receive the new funds.
This system is, by design, as airtight against political interference as our constitution permits. So if the Mail, the Sun, the Mirror and the Guardian want more public money, they should be publicly tested to ensure their journalism is genuinely ‘high quality’ and serves the public interest. Let them alter their regulation arrangements accordingly.
Finally, if the solution proposed by Dame Frances is a direct cash deal between the press industry and the big technology companies, watch out. Facebook, Google and Amazon would only agree to such funding if they had something to gain, and it is obvious what that would be: they would be buying favourable coverage of their own affairs, or at least a blind eye from the UK press.
We could confidently expect a serious reduction in press calls for these companies to pay appropriate levels of tax in this country (not that the pressure has been that great – but then the press corporations have their own dirty tax secrets to conceal).
More generally, we could expect a minimum of press scrutiny of the activities of companies whose influence in our society is already vast and is growing by the day. (Again, the scrutiny is not great as it is: look at the half-hearted follow-ups to the revelation of Facebook’s role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.)
Indeed allowing the press to become dependent on Big Tech subsidy might even be worse than introducing direct government subsidy administered by ministers, because at least our governments come up for re-election every now and then. We never voted for Mark Zuckerberg and we will never be asked to.
The technology giants are already far too unaccountable; let’s not make it worse. (And if you doubt that our press can be influenced by corporations that fund it, read this. )
This post originally appeared on Byline.com and is reproduced with permission and thanks.