Theresa May’s government may well be about to approve a new subsidy for the press – giving your cash and mine to national newspapers that are owned by billionaires and are loathed by most of the public for their record of lying, bullying, hacking and stealing private data.
In the budget on Monday there is a good chance that the Chancellor will announce a cut in VAT on online publications, giving publishers of newspapers and magazines a new tax break at the expense of the public purse.
This would be on top of the huge subsidy they already receive through the zero rating of printed newspapers and magazines for VAT – a subsidy they never mention, but which was worth no less than £594 million to the industry in the single year of 2008 and which, though it has since declined, is certainly still very substantial.
It is a measure of the corrupt power that the corporate press has over the Conservative government that they have got so close to this financial bonus for themselves without meaningful public debate, indeed almost without being seen to ask for it.
Of course they plead hardship, and indeed there is a strong case to be made for public support for genuine journalism, but there is an equally strong case to be made that no public money should ever find its way into the pockets of billionaires who operate newspapers that betray everything that journalism stands for.
Nor should public money be given (and that is what waiving VAT revenue means) to large regional press companies that, while banking profits most years, have presided over the near-destruction of their industry at great cost to communities up and down the country.
Cutting VAT, in short, is throwing your money and mine at the problem in an indiscriminate and wasteful fashion when both the public and journalism itself would be far better served by a more measured approach ensuring that cash is directed to where it will do most good.
Of course if the Chancellor announces this bung for an industry which overwhelmingly supports his party, he will dress it up as something quite different. He will probably say he is acting in the interests of free speech and democracy, and is supporting ‘high-quality journalism’ in its time of trouble. He will speak movingly of the plight of your local paper and of the begging letters he has received from the worthies of the magazine industry. He may even mention that he is acting after such cuts were approved (though not, of course, ordered) by the EU.
What he won’t say is that this money will boost the bottom line of very big and wealthy corporations, some registered in tax havens abroad, some owned by men already wealthy beyond the dreams of Croesus, and some with very serious records of criminality and abuse.