'The media exploits public resources, why shouldn’t they pay?' Response to Media Reform recommendations

Justin Schlosberg
13 December 2011

This document presents convincing reasons why the current policy focus on media reform should not shy away from sensitive but fundamental important issues concerning the funding of public interest journalism. They are fundamental not because resource constraints are reducing the quantity of journalism but because they are concentrating resources around the wrong kind of journalism in public interest terms. Like most incidences of systemic corruption, if we truly want to get to the root of Hackgate, we have to follow the money.

The suggestions for remedying this crisis are controversial. In particular, the idea of a profits levy on large scale media and communications industries is likely to be met with vociferous critique based on familiar arguments. Threats to British industry, punishing success, ‘picking winners’ and stifling international competitiveness are common retorts to any suggestion that profit-making companies should make a direct contribution to public services. But the media and communications industries are a special case because they are, or rather should be, the engines of democracy. Public service broadcasting, funded by the license fee, is clearly a necessary but insufficient component of the kind of broad public interest journalism needed to sustain a healthy and vibrant democracy.

Media and communications industries are also unique because a large component of them make huge profits by exploiting essentially public resources, be it the airwaves or the free flow of information online. Whilst 3G mobile operators have paid a premium for this, the same cannot be said for the likes of Sky and Google. The latter might not make its profits directly from news and information but there can be no doubt that aggregating content is a key driver of traffic which in turn attracts advertisers. As the document makes clear, using profit levies to cross-subsidise public interest journalism is not a new or unique concept. It has worked effectively for decades in other countries. Even in Britain, organisations like the Scott Trust (owners of the Guardian Media Group) fund their various initiatives based on this principle.  It is one that surely deserves a fair hearing in the current climate of media reform.

Another predictable repost to the paper will no doubt centre on its persistent use of the term ‘public interest news’ without attempting to define it.  The ‘public interest’ is a contested term in any context but I would argue in the case of journalism, it is not as contested as many people claim. In particular, the supposed disconnect between public interest and what the public are interested in is overstated; as is the distinction between audiences or readerships as consumers versus citizens. Perhaps the most powerful legacy of Hackgate has been the universal consensus it revealed over what does not count as public interest journalism. Whilst this might not provide a definitive boundary around public interest journalism, it does at least clear some of the mist around the concept.  No one would argue that the British public both want and deserve a news offering that is more accurate, fair and scrutinising of elites than the current ecology provides.

On the other hand, few would contest that a democratic and accountable media requires a diversity of news both in terms of content and type. But we should be clear that it is a particular type of news - and arguably the most important type in public interest terms – that is most under threat in the current financial climate. Investigative and current affairs journalism in broadcasting has faced the sharp end of prolonged and persistent resource cuts affecting operational journalism as a whole. It is partly the weakness of this sector that enabled the cover up at News of the World to succeed for many years, in spite of The Guardian’s lone barking. Importantly though, it is not purely a question of money but also the influence of funding structures on newsroom culture. This is why the combination of recommendations contained here (covering both new sources of funding and new funding models) should be a cornerstone of the media reform agenda going forward.

Justin Schlosberg is coordinator of the CCMR and PhD candidate at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His research is concerned with media coverage of corruption and crime within the British establishment.   

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