Three-D Issue 20: The other elephant in the room: funding public interest news

Justin Schlosberg, Birkbeck, University of London

As we reflect on the post-Leveson political furore, it is worth recalling Stuart Hall’s maxim that it is the way in which public problems are defined – rather than their proposed solutions – which exemplifies the exercise of real power in advanced capitalist democracies.  The overwhelming spotlight shone by both Leveson’s report and the subsequent coverage has been on the single issue of how to regulate journalist ethics and practice. Yet Leveson’s remit – and even more so the testimony during his hearings – pointed to much wider problems of systemic corruption in the media, police and politics undermining not just the privacy rights of individuals, but the very fabric of our democracy.

One key factor overlooked by Leveson is the funding crisis which has long been enveloping the news industry and has accelerated post-digitisation and the great economic collapse. The problem with this crisis is not that it is squeezing the space for news and information generally, but that it is militating against the mainstays of fourth estate media – current affairs television, investigative reporting and local news – which have long faced the thin end of the wedge. This is occurring within both public service and commercial outlets and has been the subject of much critical discourse about the media for the past two decades.

1 Justin S - q1Yet this discourse has been surprisingly silenced by the post-Leveson fracas. The reform of press regulation may go some way to shoring up defences against illegal acts of press intrusion that are unjustifiable on public interest grounds. But the prevalence of ‘bad’ journalism practices and ethics in any democracy can only meaningfully be dealt with by widening the space for its antedote: ‘good’ journalism that properly scrutinises power without fear or favour. Critics of the new Royal Charter are wrong to suggest that it will inhibit good journalism in this sense. Statutory underpinning will constrain the lever of influence over press regulation wielded by both editors and ministers and it will be accompanied by a new public interest defence for journalists enshrined in statute for the first time. But they are right to argue that it will not address the central problem of funding which remains arguably the greatest threat to journalist autonomy. In other words, the Royal Charter will not inhibit good journalism, but it will certainly not promote it and the latter is what we need if we want to address the big picture issues invoked by the Leveson hearings beyond short-term or cosmetic fixes.

Like the problem of media ownership – the other ‘elephant’ in Leveson’s room – the need for policy to address the funding crisis in journalism is a point of broad consensus among journalists, editors and campaigners. But unlike the problem of media ownership, there are real opportunities for reform that risk being overlooked as a result of the enduring preoccupation with statutory regulation. Outside the UK, there is both well-established precedent and a wind of change blowing across Europe in favour of new methods of funding for journalism beyond the state-corporate framework. One pertinent example is Google’s announcement last month that it has agreed to create a ‘digital fund’ to the tune of £50million to support French publishers and new digital news initiatives. The move was in effect a settlement following several years of lobbying by publishers and murmurings by legislators. This threatened to force Google to ‘pay’ for the content it appropriates from news providers in its search listings. Such arguments were given added force by the fact that Google itself is effectively afforded a huge public subsidy by virtue of the tax loopholes it exploits. According to one analysis, Google pays less than 3 percent of the tax it would have to pay if these loopholes were closed. Google is also the prime beneficiary of digital migration by newspaper advertisers, a process which has fatally undermined the models that have traditionally paid for both local and investigative journalism.

In principle, the idea that Google should contribute to supporting those areas of public interest journalism increasingly under-served by the market is not, as tech pundits suggest, an evil precedent casting a shadow over the flow of free information online. It reflects rather a longstanding tradition in European democracies of cross-subsidising journalism in favour of its ‘merit good’ attributes for which both consumers and producers tend to under-invest in. From the creation of Channel 4 to the licensing of local TV stations, this principle has been invoked in UK media policy for several generations and it is the sole reason why newspapers such as the Times and the Guardian have survived for as long as they have.

But cross-subsidies cannot be left solely to the discretion of conglomerates such as News International or indeed Google. Without proper and transparent public oversight, the Google ‘settlement’ with news publishers risks enhancing the former’s gatekeeping power online and/or amounting to a ‘blank cheque’ to newspapers that will do little more than slow down an already painfully slow death. The UK state already offers a blanket subsidy to the press to the tune of half a billion annually (through VAT exemption) but this goes as much if not more to supporting ‘bad’ journalism practices than ‘good’.

Some will argue that any form of public oversight in respect of third sector media funding will ‘cross the rubicon’ of independence once more. But if we are prepared to accept the Arts Council as an independent funding body for non-commercial creative pursuits, there is no basis on which to reject journalism from that equation. Arguments concerning the need for independence of the arts and cultural industries from the state are no different from those pertaining to journalism. Indeed, the distinction of journalism from broader cultural pursuits is increasingly untenable in the age of convergence.

In reality, an annual contribution of £50million is small change to Google. But understandably, the online giant does not want to be seen as bailing out an industry with an outdated business model or adding to the coffers of media moguls that carry little favour with tech pundits or the general public alike. Google’s framing of the French settlement strongly suggests that it would be more amenable to a solution that positions it as a champion of diversity and innovation.

On that note, several new news initiatives have emerged in recent years that exploit hybrid models of funding, multi-platform strategies and crowd-sourcing techniques in an attempt to revitalise investigative and local journalism. Such initiatives are fragile and marginal but offer the best strand of hope for regeneration. And whilst £50million may be small change to Google, it can be a complete game changer for local and investigative news start-ups. As attention turns to how Google will respond to pressure in other key markets (including the UK and Germany), campaigners and policymakers should be mobilising to ensure that opportunities are not missed and that any outcome works to promote public interest media rather than maintain the status quo.

Justin Schlosberg is a media activist, researcher and lecturer based at Birkbeck, University of London. He is the author of ‘Power Beyond Scrutiny: Media, Justice and Accountability

Posted by Einar Thorsen