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The Public and the Public Interest

A journalism fund, financed by levying the profits of incumbent media companies, could transform local and investigative journalism in Britain. Such a move has the support of the public. 

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A YouGov poll for the Media Reform Coalition in the UK has found that there is majority support for a fund to support investigative and local journalism, raised from “a levy on the UK profits of the largest media companies (including search engines, social media and Pay TV companies).”

A full 25% of those polled were neutral about the idea. Another 15% said that they didn’t know. Nevertheless, 51% either strongly supported or tended to support it. Only 9% opposed it.

There is something remarkable about this. Politicians, to the extent that they have spoken about the media and its power post-Leveson, have tended to focus on the issue of newspaper regulation. Journalists and broadcasters have also been noticeably reluctant to discuss the full range of possibilities for media reform.

But even in the absence of a serious debate in the mainstream, the public already support the idea of a journalism fund. Let me suggest why this is the case.

Firstly, there are glaring problems with the current communications system. The scandals that began with the invasion of Iraq are also failures by the major media to identify and describe threats to the public interest in a timely manner.

Secondly, internet publishing and social media allow critics of existing media institutions to reach the public without having to rely on those same media institutions. To take one example, when Peter Oborne resigned from the Telegraph he was able to write about his decision on this website. We believe that something is wrong with journalism, and good grounds for that belief are durably available online.

Thirdly, we are beginning to realise that investigative journalism costs money. If we are to have knowledge that powerful interests want to keep from us, we will have to pay people to do the work. In the past the economics of investigative journalism was kept obscure. Large media companies treated investigations as carefully managed exceptions to the business-friendly rule. Now sites like uncoverage.com and contributoria.com connect a paying public to journalists and projects. Individuals who pay for investigative journalism can more easily grasp the extent to which the distribution of effective (ie funded) curiosity shapes the content of the public sphere.

Although the idea of a journalism fund is popular, it is important to distinguish between different ways of administering it. In one of the rare moments when a mainstream journalist has said something about funding journalism in the digital age, David Leigh proposed adding £2 a month to broadband bills.

The money raised, said Leigh, “could be collected by a freestanding agency … and redistributed automatically to ‘news providers’ according to their share of UK online readership.” In this model Leigh estimated that “the Telegraph group, the Associated Newspapers’ stable and the Guardian Media Group would each receive in the region of 20% of the cash – £100m a year.” How they spent this windfall would be up to them, of course.

We don’t have to strain too hard to think of a better way of financing a journalism fund. We could levy the profits of large media companies, as proposed above. Or we could pay for it via a reformed licence fee, which also funds access to an integrated digital public space and guaranteed broadband access along the lines proposed by Tony Ageh.

What really matters is how the fund is distributed. If the incumbent media companies have their way, it will be shared between … incumbent media companies. A hundred million here, a hundred million there – you can see why the idea appealed to Leigh. If the BBC’s executives have their way they will control the money. These guardians of the public-service ethos can then continue to enjoy their lavishly paid tussles with politicians behind closed doors.

Neither option is acceptable. If a journalism fund is to address deficiencies in existing coverage it must be democratic in structure. That is, each citizen must have an equal voice in the distribution of funds, in a process that is organised according to defensible and comprehensible principles that are themselves subject to public review. A general fund on these lines will have a transformative effect on public speech. Injustice and the fictions that sustain it will finally face sustained scrutiny.

Reliable and relevant information is a public good, perhaps the preeminent public good. Without it a nominally sovereign public is reduced to the condition of an audience. As we move from broadcast to digital we have an opportunity to create news and current affairs media that serve the democratic polity by a process of steady but relentless demystification. Our opponents will work to ensure that pervasive and persuasive advertorial continues to cover the field of publicity with misleading dichotomies, life-threatening reassurances and outright fabrications.

Changes to the structure of communications are already bringing constitutional change. The constitution is a matter of lively concern for the Scots and is beginning to prey on the minds even of the English. Sophisticated conservatives will want to make the new technology safe for oligarchy. But if we establish a democratically controlled media fund then we have an opportunity to break the effective domination of public speech by unaccountable interests.

We can take heart from the fact that our fellow citizens want to understand the world we have in common.

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