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The urgent need for an economic stimulus plan to ensure media quality

Submitted by on 22 Nov 2010 – 10:28

By Jeremy Dear, General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists in Great Britain and Ireland

There is a growing acknowledgement amongst journalists that too many media are failing democracy but also an increasing belief that politicians are failing the media.

It is often said not much happens in Long Eaton – which is just as well. It has no commercial radio station, little coverage on regional news and last year its only local newspaper closed.

The Long Eaton Advertiser was closed, not because the people of Long Eaton did not want news about their council, health service, education system or local community but because of “difficult trading conditions”.

The paper was profitable, just not profitable enough for shareholders.

The Long Eaton Advertiser was not a victim of the recession, even though it had seen a fall in advertising revenue. It was a victim of a failed business model for news – a model encouraged by governments through deregulation and turning a blind eye to the effects of mergers, indebtedness and excessive profiteering.

Since the Long Eaton Advertiser shut a further 105 newspapers have closed. One in four jobs in local newspapers have gone. Dozens of local media offices have closed removing journalists from the communities they serve. ITV has cut more than 1000 jobs and halved its regional news services. A growing number of newspapers have gone from daily to weekly. Local and late editions have been cut, supplements axed, specialists ditched. Media analysts predict half the country’s 1300 local newspapers will close between now and 2013, destroying 20,000 skilled media jobs.

As a result local and national democracy is suffering – councils, courts and public bodies are no longer being properly scrutinised. 64% of editors believe they are not adequately scrutinising local councils. 80% of judges believe courts are not subject to adequate scrutiny. Journalists are increasingly stuck in offices rewriting press releases – relying ever more on corporate or celebrity PR.

So what should be done?

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

The supply of the independent information people need to be engaged citizens is too important to be left entirely to companies motivated primarily by profit.

The founders of the free press never thought that freedom of the press 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 that communities should be deprived of quality information.

There are those who argue the answer is to keep cutting costs. It isn’t. No newspaper was made better by having fewer reporters.

There are those who argue the answer is to sweep away ownership rules and allow greater consolidation. It isn’t. Enabling greater concentration of ownership not only undermines plurality but in practice leads to fewer jobs, fewer titles, less resources devoted to newsgathering, and media more remote from the communities they serve.

And there are those who argue that the answer is to reduce the public service obligations on media. It isn’t. If anything it is to put public service increasingly at the heart of media policy.

The case for public support for public service media has never been greater.

We need political action to save, build and sustain newsgathering. We’ve 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.

New media could be stimulated through public support in the form of start-up grants, subsidised technology or training grants.

Such moves could be supported by tax breaks for local media who meet clearly defined public purposes.

Such action is not about propping up failing companies or business models but about delivering public service content across platforms. To ensure public money is used for the public good clear and enforceable conditions need to be applied, that safeguard the production of original content in the public interest.

But is it affordable?

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

With the right political commitment we could levy those news aggregators, mobile operators or pay TV services who profit from re-broadcasting public service content but pay nothing towards its creation. The IPPR estimate such levies, as used in almost every other country in the EU, could raise almost £300m a year.

Used properly, and with strict boundaries between funders and editorial control, such funds could help stimulate new publications, broadband radio, online news operations, groups of investigative journalists and much more.