Theresa May’s ‘review’ of ways of funding journalism into the future runs a high risk of becoming an elaborate device for the Conservative party to channel lucrative new favours to Murdoch, the Mail and its other press friends.
Everything about the prime minister’s recent record in relation to press matters points in that direction, even though her announcement was couched in the lofty terms of democracy, public debate and informed citizenship.
Only if this review, or inquiry, is totally independent of politicians, and only if its recommendations are dealt with by politicians on the basis of cross-party consultation, can it truly serve the interests of democracy and of the public.
Ideally, in fact, its remit should be added to the terms of reference of the overdue part two of the Leveson inquiry (Leveson 2), which will be suitably independent and which already has the brief to look at how well our big press companies are run.
Leveson 2, currently blocked by May as a favour to her press cronies, would thus be perfectly placed both to identify the best ways to support journalism (for example by subsidies funded from taxes on social media companies) and to determine without political bias what kinds of journalistic organisations should benefit from this.
Bear in mind that whatever happens we can be certain that at the front of the queue for any benefits delivered by the review will be the Murdoch, Mirror and Mail companies, with regional publishers such as Newsquest and Johnston close behind them.
Are these the right companies through which to deliver public support for national and local journalism into the future? Some are guilty of criminal activity in the recent past; some clearly put dividends before journalism; all have stubbornly refused to accept the kind of independent and effective regulation recommended by the first Leveson inquiry.
Perhaps most tellingly, the journalists on our national papers are not trusted. Four out of five people say they don’t trust them to write the truth, and they have the worst trust rating in Europe.
On the other hand the BBC, which May did not mention in her speech, is a highly successful journalistic organisation. It is not only our biggest employer of journalists, but BBC journalism is relied upon by more of us than any other. And it is by some margin the most trusted in the country.
And then there are new online news organisations, some large and some tiny, bringing journalism to readers and viewers in fresh and lively ways. Are they the real future?
These are matters that Leveson 2 would be fully competent to consider – independently of government or other political influence.
As for cross-party consensus, anything less will turn the implementation of the review’s recommendations into a corrupt game of favour-trading between press bosses and ministers. And if you think cooperation at that level can’t happen you are wrong, because the first Leveson inquiry was established by cross-party agreement and two years later its recommendations were implemented by cross-party agreement.
It can be done. Sadly the Conservatives turned their back on it and the result has been disgraceful collusion that routinely puts the interests of proprietors and politicians before those of the public and of democracy. May’s stalling of Leveson 2 is a classic instance.
Equally, if you also think that public subsidy for journalism is a far-fetched or un-British idea, think again. We already do it in a big way through the licence fee, but that’s only half the story.
All newspapers and magazines are zero-rated for VAT, and that’s worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the industry every year. The local press also benefits to the tune of tens of millions from requirements on local authorities to advertise with them, and also from a special business rate discount. And about to start is a complex new £8m-per-year subsidy for the local press, diverted from the BBC.