What would Rupert Murdoch say about that?

Saving local newspapers and developing new, democratic news outlets is not a matter of money but of political will, argues Jeremy Dear, who outlines where the money could come from

February 14, 2010
7 min read

It is often said that not much happens in the Midlands town of Long Eaton. Perhaps that’s just as well. It has no commercial radio station, little coverage on regional TV news – and earlier this year its only local newspaper closed. This was not because the people of Long Eaton did not want news about their council, their health service, their education system or their local community, but apparently because of ‘difficult trading conditions’.

The Long Eaton Advertiser was owned by Trinity Mirror, the massive media company that recorded profits of £145 million in 2008 and

£50 million in interim results for 2009. That’s the equivalent of £200,000 profit every single day over the past 12 months.

The Long Eaton Advertiser was not a victim of the recession, even though it had seen a huge fall in advertising revenue – it was a victim of a failed corporate business model for news. This is the model that has been encouraged by politicians through deregulation and by turning a blind eye to the effects of mergers, indebtedness and excessive profiteering on citizens’ rights to information.

Trinity Mirror were not the only pigs caught with their snouts in the media trough, their heads in the sand and their arses exposed. The bubble of a decade of soaring profits has also burst for Johnston Press, EMAP, Newsquest, GMG and others. With it, a further 70 newspapers have closed. Almost one in four jobs in local newspapers have disappeared.

Thousands more jobs have been axed across national newspapers and magazines – and not just in old-fashioned print but in shiny new media too. Dozens of local media offices have closed, removing thousands of journalists from the communities they serve. ITV has cut more than 1,000 jobs and halved its regional news services, while 7,000 jobs have gone at the BBC.

A growing number of newspapers have gone from daily to weekly, from evening to overnight, from paid-for to free. Editions are cut, supplements folded, freelances ditched and specialists axed.

Claire Enders, a media analyst, predicts that half the country’s 1,300 local newspapers will close between now and 2013, destroying a further 20,000 media jobs. It is not just readers, viewers and listeners who will suffer the effects of that. Local and national democracy is suffering too. Councils, courts and public bodies are no longer being properly scrutinised. Journalists are stuck in offices rewriting press releases – relying ever more on corporate or celebrity PR.

While the media industry remains fundamentally profitable, the corporate business model is killing quality journalism, cutting away what is perceived to be expensive – investigative, international and original newsgathering. Such corporate vandalism is an affront to media freedom.

At the heart of this debate must be a total rejection of the idea set out by James Murdoch that profit is the best guarantee of media quality and independence. It’s not.

The founders of the free press never thought that press freedom would only belong to those who could afford a press. They would have been horrified at the idea that if rich people determine there is not sufficient commercial value in news, communities should be deprived of quality information and quality journalism.

So we need action to save, build and sustain newsgathering. The National Union of Journalists has called for an economic stimulus plan for journalism, with action aimed at encouraging a variety of voices, across all platforms, a greater plurality, maximised through a combination of different ownership models – commercial, public, mutual, employee, co-operative, for profit and not for profit.

Alternative new media could be stimulated through start-up grants, subsidised technology, office space or training grants, solutions driven by journalists and communities themselves – online radio, broadband tv, print and online. Such moves could be supported by tax breaks for local media who meet clearly defined public purposes, tax credits for individuals subscribing to publications that meet such public purposes.

Companies planning to close titles could be forced to divest them. Action should be taken to break up large corporate media groups that fail to meet clearly defined public purposes.

In government plans for independently financed news consortia we have the potential to explore such new thinking, if instead of just replicating failed business models and concentrated ownership, they bring together a wider array of civil society partners and media. Such local media could support hyper-local initiatives, encouraging partnerships between traditional and non-traditional content providers based on the pursuit of specific public interest goals.

To ensure any public money is used for the public good, for the benefit of the communities media serve – not primarily private businesses and shareholders – clear and enforceable conditions need to be applied. These must safeguard the production of original content in the public interest. There should be reinvestment quotas to ensure the maximum amount of public money invested is used for content rather than profit, along with guaranteed levels of original content and caps on directors’ pay.

Politicians say they like such ideas. They restate their commitment to local and national democracy. They recognise media, news and information is vital to that democracy. But they say the ideas are not affordable.

Even if you could bring the supply of genuinely fair and balanced information down to a simple economic equation, safeguarding the future of the media is not really a question of resources but a question of political will.

Top-slicing the BBC licence fee is not the only way to fund local news. Cutting the BBC down to size is not the only means of ensuring the supply of local news in print and online.

With the right commitment we could levy, as most other countries in Europe already do, those who profit from rebroadcasting public service content but pay nothing towards its creation. For example, news aggregators, exploiting news content for commercial gain, could be made to pay.

As the digital revolution gathers pace, huge revenues are being made by TV operators, internet service providers and consumer hardware manufacturers – all by consumers desiring to watch high quality programmes on new platforms. Added to the advertising income made by non-public service broadcasters, these revenues dwarf those of the public service operators who are responsible for 90 per cent of the UK-originated content available on our screens.

Almost every other European country applies a levy to recording devices. In Germany it raises EUR146 million, in France EUR168 million. Yet we are told it is politically unthinkable here.

Even in pay-TV households, the average viewer spends 80 per cent of their time watching the public service stations. Without the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 on their platforms, pay-TV providers would struggle to make a fraction of the £4.3 billion they earned in 2007. We are almost the only country that does not insist they pay retransmission fees. Applying just a 1 per cent levy could raise more than £70 million for content creation.

Ofcom’s consumer research showed levies to be ‘the most acceptable of the potential new sources of funding’, ‘one of the most appropriate long-term solutions’ and ‘perceived as a fair way to fund PSB [public service broadcasting], by taking money from the industry to reinvest in the industry’.

Funding for news is not about resources – it is about politics. I’m sick of hearing MPs say ‘But can you imagine what Rupert Murdoch would say about that?’ while bemoaning the closure of another newspaper, a scaling back of local or regional TV news or the centralised hubbing of yet another set of radio stations.

Digital media offers us huge opportunities to enhance our democracy through investment in newsgathering. It offers us greater opportunities for participation, collaboration, mutualisation. Yet we are hamstrung by those who cling on to old failed business models.

Can it be done? William Morris said all we need is ‘intelligence enough to conceive, courage enough to will, power enough to compel. If our ideas of a new society are to be anything other than a dream, these three qualities must animate the due effective majority of the working people; and then I say, the thing will be done.’

Jeremy Dear is general secretary of the National Union of Journalists. Read the international Charter for Innovation, Creativity and Access to Knowledge


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