Friday, April 22, 2011

Enlightenment Revisited

I've mostly been blogging at The Return of the Public. The other day I found myself retracing my argument in The Threat to Reason. The post is here. There is mystery enough in the world still, it seems.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Earlier this month the BBC Trust commissioned a poll that looked like an attempt to kick the part of the Digital Britain report dealing with the provison of local news into the long grass. Sir Michael Lyons came out to bat on September 9th, in the Guardian:

Quoting the BBC-commissioned survey of more than 2,000 adults, Lyons said they had been given six choices what to do with the licence fee surplus once digital switchover was complete.

"Around half of those asked would prefer the licence fee to be lowered by £5.50, compared to just six per cent who wanted additional money to be spent on regional news on other channels," said Lyons.

That's not a terribly helpful precis of the 'topline' data from the survey. 61% of those polled supported the idea of getting £5.50 back (they scored it between 7-10 on a scale of 1-10 where 1 meant 'No Support at all' and 10 meant 'Complete Support'), and 49% of those polled saw the lower license fee as their preferred option. That much is true.

But 27% of those asked supported increased funding for regional news (it was the preferred option of 6%, as Lyons says), 29% supported increased funding for other forms of public service content outside the BBC and 36% supported increased funding for program-making at the BBC.

Now here's the thing. Until we know how many of those who saw a lower licence fee as the best outcome also supported the use of funds for expanded program-making, we don't know how many people in the survey had registered the fact that a lower license fee would rule out all the other options, and weren't really clear about what the survey was asking them, or weren't really that bothered about having all the money back, but gave that answer because they wanted some of it. I can well believe that many people want a lower licence fee, but how many of them also want improved public service content?

After all if I strongly agree with the idea of giving the money to regional journalism and with having all the £5.50 back, I am not really paying attention, and am probably in a hurry to be somewhere else, away from the stranger with the clipboard.

The head of the BBC Trust will doubtless take the trouble to publish the full report on the poll with as much fanfare as it has presented its own highly partial summary of the 'topline' data. But it would be even better if they re-ran the survey with a couple more questions -

Do you think that the £5.50 from the digital switchover should be used to fund investigations into local and national corruption, abuse of the planning system and criminal behaviour by local and national elites, these investigations to be chosen by a democratic vote, like in TV talent shows, only with crooks in high places. Britain's Top Economic and Political Gangster, sort of thing?

Or do you think that the £5.50 should be spent on what you, as a public organised locally, regionally and nationally want, including but not limited to Britain's Top Economic and Political Gangster as above?

Now that's a survey I would like the body statutorily responsible for defending the interests of the BBC's audience to commission.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Adventures in Consultation Land

The government has asked for responses to its white paper Digital Britain by September 22. I urge all my dozens of readers to go here and make their voices heard. The report authors insist that while Ofcom, the BBC and Channel 4 are all important, they want to hear from members of the public. I am not sure if they actually expect to hear from us, so it would nice to surprise them.

It would be particularly interesting to see what they say about attitudes revealed in the answers to question 4, given its farcical structure.

1. Do you agree that securing plural sources of impartial news for the Nations, locally and in the regions should be a key priority?



The existing mix of private and state institutions is demonstrably failing to provide accurate, timely, publicly relevant and impartial news. This failure has played out at the local, regional and national level. There is now a growing crisis of plausibility in the news media and it is vital that the review of Digital Britain addresses this.

The proposals in Digital Britain should be seen as a starting point for a period of public debate as to the institutional structure of news-gathering in Britain and the need for wide-ranging reform. Particular attention should be paid to the need for democratic control of the commissioning process in journalism. Where public subsidy makes investigative journalism possible, the citizen body should have the right to decide what forms of investigation serve its interests.

2. Do you agree that sustainable, impartial news in the Nations, locally and in the regions is likely to require some top-up public funding?



Clearly the market cannot be left to provide news unaided. Public money will be needed. The crucial question concerns who controls this money. Do we leave it to bureaucrats, or do we ensure that the public controls the uses to which its own money is put?

3. Do you agree that the Television Licence Fee should be used to support impartial news in the Nations, locally and in the regions in addition to BBC services?



The TV licence fee is a natural source for top up funding. There is also an argument for imposing a levy on highly profitable companies that benefit from the use of public resources. I would be particularly keen to see News International subject to a levy, given its imaginative approach to the country's tax laws and the longstanding contempt that its owners and managers have shown to common decency.

4. Do you agree that any funding within a contained contestable element of the Television Licence Fee not required for impartial news should potentially be available to fund other forms of essential public service content, or should such funding be limited to news?



This is a trick question, isn't it? If I am answering the first question then the answer is yes, if the second the answer is no. How many of your respondents have spotted this? How have you addressed the question's ambiguity in your work on the consultation?

The money should be used to support news-gathering and the creation of civic content - that is, it should be made available to journalists, researchers and citizens who are able to persuade their fellow citizens of the merits of the projects they wish to work on. It should be up to the citizen body to decide on the kinds of content it wants.

5. Are there alternative funding mechanisms that you believe would deliver the previous objectives more effectively?


Yes [sort of]

As said above, a levy of communications companies should be considered. But given that some money previously controlled by the BBC seems to be available, we should start with that and move on to industry levies as the public realizes how much fun it is to control the investigative infrastructure.

6. Do you agree with the proposal to set a maximum percentage of Television Licence Fee revenue which could be set aside as a contained contestable element?



There is no point going hog wild at this stage. The BBC produces a great deal that the public value and it should be kept as a strongly financed state broadcaster. Money can be found for other sources for further expansion of the democratic media.

Besides, £126 million per year is quite a lot to be going on with, especially if it is administered through public commissioning and not frittered away on management salaries, consultancy fees and various other boondoggles.

7. Do you agree that amending the BBC Agreement could provide the necessary protection to the BBC's future funding and independence?



I have put yes, because I have to answer something here, but the honest answer is that I don't know.

8. Do you agree that the use of any contained contestable element within the Television Licence Fee should be restricted to the public purposes set out in the BBC Charter?



The uses made of the contestable element should be determined by the relevant publics. The BBC has not proved adequate to serving the public interest in crucial respects and its charter cannot be allowed to preempt the actions of the public.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Responding to "Digital Britain" Part II

The proposals in Digital Britain for public service content are interesting and, in some respects encouraging. It is right for the government to recognise that the existing media system is failing in the regions and in the devolved nations. But both the diagnosis and the proposed course of treatment are inadequate.

Journalism in Britain is not struggling simply because the existing news media are facing a squeeze on advertising revenues caused by both the recession and competition from the internet. Journalism is facing a crisis of plausibility as its repeated failures to describe reality become more and more difficult to explain away or justify to the general public (senior journalists remain almost infinitely forgiving of their profession's derelictions of common sense, of course - see, for example, Timothy Garton Ash on the Iraq War. He has been 'kicking himself' ever since he swallowed all that stuff about WMDs in 2002. And now that it doesn't matter he has promised to be much more suspicious in future.

I digress.

Journalism is in crisis because it cannot describe the world in terms that are recognisable to an averagely observant person. The world-view that informs the media in Britain and the United States lacks a factual base. People can see how their towns and cities are being transformed by corporate development, yet the media says little or nothing about the process by which this happens and so denies the majority any meaningful say in matters of everyday importance. People can see how their money is now being used to prop up an ailing financial system after a generation of being told that the private sector had to be left alone to work its magic. People can see that governments lie outright when the stakes are high enough, as they in the case of Iraq. People can see that the media ignore issues that touch on their own vital interests and the vital interests of their patrons in the state and corporate sectors.

Given the narrow scope of the analysis of the problem, it is hardly surprising that the proposals for reform in Digital Britain are timid, going on counterproductive ...


The cure does depend on finding money from somewhere other than the market place. The cure does depend in part on diverting money from the BBC to other news providers. But these news providers must be much more responsive to the needs of their audiences and much less concerned to serve institutional masters whose motives are at burst murky and at worst downright vicious. Rather, money raised on an equitable basis from the public should be used to support journalism of the sort desired by the public. The public should exercise direct control of the research agenda of journalists seeking public money to assist them in their work. In other words, money taken from the license fee should be given to journalists who can convince the public (their paymasters) that their work will serve their interests. I can see no just or justifiable alternative to a democratic system of commissioning.

At the moment the major news media keep a very tight leash on their investigative reporters, and appear to the casual observer to be engaged in a kind of permanent campaign of implicit blackmail and counter-blackmail with both their competitors and with potential threats to their interests. The power to commission investigation lies at the heart of the media's power. And this is so even if, especially if, much of the material discovered remains unpublished. It is up to us to insist on meaningful media reform, and to demand that our money is spent on inquiries of which we approve.

Such a system of funding would allow us to conduct preliminary 'public inquiries' into matters that concern us, but that have no elite backing. In this way an important, perhaps crucial, element of the information economy would be democratised, and the power for the state and of the interests that dominate it to shape the news agenda would be significantly reduced. A new form of tribunician journalism would be made possible as individuals saw the possibilities of a career serving the wishes of the public, rather than those of their current patrons and employers.

None of the established interests are going to support this move, since it promises such thorough-going disruption of their prerogatives. Only the public, organized perhaps through this wonderful invention, the internet, can put this onto the political agenda.

Responding to "Digital Britain"


The publication in July of Lord Carter’s extensive review of the UK’s media policy, Digital Britain, prompted a vast amount of coverage in the UK media. Setting aside their usual reluctance to discuss the structure of the media devant les enfants, the major newspapers and the BBC waded in to tell us what they thought of the report and to give some impressionistic summaries of what was in it. Lord Carter himself was unimpressed by the quality of the coverage:

I think 90% of the people that are writing these articles have not read the report … But that does not stop them producing 2,500 pieces of copy, almost all of which are inaccurate. There is a conflation of what we are recommending on broadband, there is a blatant inaccuracy in what we are saying on local news, there is no attempt to read what is laid out in complete detail in chapter nine.

In what follows I set out to provide a summary of the report’s proposals for public service content. The report calls for a period of consultation between now and September 22. The public needs to have as clear an understanding of what is being proposed as possible, insofar as it relates to the provision of public service content on television and radio, in print and online, so that it can contribute to this consultation process. I urge readers to engage in the consultation process, and to go beyond the quite narrow bounds of the process as currently structured. If you have ever thought that media reform would be a good idea, now is the time to take action. Changes are inevitable - the form they take is up for grabs

So far the BBC and the private media groups have dominated the response to the government’s proposals. With one or two honourable exceptions they have to date failed to provide the public with an accurate and adequate summary or set out a reasoned account of how public service content might be improved in this country. Accordingly I sketch an approach to public service provision that, while building on the proposals in Digital Britain, would more substantially safeguard the interests of media workers – journalists, broadcasters – and better serve the interests of the public as a whole. In the period between now and September the government is running a consultation on Digital Britain. I hope that what follows will encourage more people to engage in what is a chance to make important changes to a media system that needs to be reformed for the common good.

The Findings of the Report

Digital Britain discusses public service provision in the executive summary and in chapter 5 of the report. At the outset the report states that there are ‘gaps in market provision where plurality of provision, beyond the BBC, ranged from the desirable to essential’. In this context it mentions material for older children and ‘particularly news in the Nations, regionally and locally’ (p.19).

It therefore proposes that some portion of the 3.5% of the license fee currently being used to fund the digital switchover should be used to support public service content. It says that it is ‘open to other proposals for funding in the consultation process’, but it makes it clear that the license fee is the obvious source of extra funds for this purpose: ‘The Television License Fee is the major intervention for content and is the most suitable source for this funding’ (p.19).

It goes on to say that it will ‘discuss with the BBC Trust how the remaining part of the emerging underspend in the Digital Help Scheme, that is not being used to help fund the Broadband Universal Service Commitment, could be used to fund pilots between now and 2012’ (p.20). It also insists that ‘any funding needs to be contestable, allocated against clear clear range, reach, and quality criteria, by an arm’s length body’ (p.20). So the government wants to give some money to content providers who are not the BBC and it wants to establish a transparent mechanism for doing so.

Since publication Ben Bradshaw, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has made it clear that the government is thinking of using all of the 3.5% of the TV license fee to support public service content:

We think it reasonable to use about 3.5% of the license fee – the proportion currently ringfenced to help pay for digital switchover – to ensure there continue to be plural, local and regional news.

In chapter 5 of the report the authors go into a little more detail about their reasoning and their intentions. The case for strong intervention by the state to deliver public service content has been ‘accentuated by the rapid diminution of advertiser-funded market surplus that had funded commercially-provided public service content’ (p.137). In other words ITV and the local newspapers are running out of money as their hold on the advertising market weakens. And if we, as a society, decide that ‘we want plurality that the market unaided will not provide, we need also to decide how we are to fund it’ (p.137). If we will the ends, we must also will the means.

It identifies three gaps in market provision:

1.) News in the Nations, regionally and locally
2.) Material for older children
3.) Hard factual content and documentaries

The report specifically rules out new funding for satire and innovative content and later identifies Channel 4 as the focus for the production of children’s content outside the BBC:

We believe that the most appropriate way to future proof the provision of original children’s production in the UK is to enshrine within the newly defined remit for Channel Four, a solid commitment to children’s content, with priority given to older children – the area where there is the greatest market failure. We are looking forward to considering the proposal of Channel 4’s board. (p.147)

This leaves news and hard factual content as possible areas where new funding models need to be found. The government thinks it is a good idea to support regional and local journalism because:

It is important for civic society and democracy for people to have a range of sources of accurate and trustworthy news at all levels, local, national and in the Nations as well as UK-wide and international news that is guaranteed, beyond market provision. (p.141)

This will require, the government concedes, some institutional innovation:

To sustain the vital civic function of journalism, citizens, government and business will need to devise new ways to find the news. (p.149)

It is tempting to ask at this point whether the public sector support of journalistic content before now has been able to deliver ‘accurate and trustworthy news at all levels’. Public engagement with the political process has been in decline on most measures for most of the post-war period. The shortcomings in local and regional provision in both print and broadcast were apparent long before a crisis hit the advertising markets. The decision to support plural provision of public service content is to be welcomed, but it is difficult to accept that tacit assumption that the previous system adequately supported civic society and democracy.

Be that as it may, the report makes it clear that the BBC’s proposals to share infrastructure with other news providers will be adequate to offset the collapse of local and regional news provision (p.142).

The report does not propose simply subsidizing the existing ITV local news infrastructure, in part on efficiency grounds:

Funding would achieve substantially more per pound of input in the hands of new operators using new media than to sustain a legacy broadcast network and studios for regional news built in and for the days of surplus in the system. (p.142. The waywardness of the prose in the section quoted is unfortunately somewhat characteristic of the report as a whole.)

This ties in with the report’s hope that new forms of plural provision will ‘provide regional and local hubs for the development of multi-media skills’ (p.22). The emphasis seems to be on moving beyond a traditional broadcast model and on using public money to promote innovation in the media market.

The move to change the structure of public support for content will have to be done in such a way as to ‘deliver independence both from the government and from the BBC’s own editorial independence’. (p.142. Like I said the prose is kind of a worry at times.) Nothing is said about the need to deliver editorial independence from the commercial interests of the new publicly funded bodies themselves, a point to which we shall return.

The preferred institutional vehicle for delivering contestable and editorially independent news is the Independently Financed News Consortium (IFNC). And just what is an IFNC? The report explains:

Independently Financed News Consortia are a joining of interested parties who will provide a more ambitious cross-media proposition and enhanced localness compared with current commercial television regional news; but which, to maximise audience reach, will also broadcast in the regional news slots in the schedule of current Channel 3 Licensees.

Consortia would include but not be limited to existing television news providers, newspaper groups or other newsgathering agencies. IFNCs would be chosen against public criteria. As essential criteria these are likely to include: the ability to achieve reach and impact; high production and editorial standards to sustain accuracy and impartiality; and the financial stamina to sustain the service at quality throughout the period of the award. Criteria for desirable outcomes could include the ability to raise the proportion of total activity devoted to journalism; commitments to distinctiveness and original/investigative journalism; commitments to multi-media training and willingness to/arrangements for syndication of news stories to other news organisations, whether nationally, regionally or locally.

The necessary governance arrangements will ensure that IFNCs deliver value for money, with sufficient reach and impact to justify the public investment; are editorially independent; simple and transparent in their set-up and on-going administration, properly accountable for their use of public funds and capable of providing regional news programmes based on clear service level agreements.

So the IFNCs will deliver broadcast news over the ITV network, though they will be expected to deliver ‘enhanced localness’ and ‘a more ambitious cross-media proposition’. The report goes on to say that it is minded to mount three pilot schemes, one in Scotland, one in Wales and one in an English region:

Third parties wishing to join the pilots in Scotland and Wales would need to meet essential criteria, including being either an existing news provider with an established audience in the relevant Nation (e.g. a local newspaper or radio station), a media production company or other broadcast, local television or multi-media company with a track record of delivering news or current affairs in the Nation; and can meet financial integrity and compliance tests [...] Similar criteria will be applied to the overall composition of the Consortium for the English region. Third parties with clear business and financial integrity with experience in news provision would tend to be in a stronger position. (p.157)

As it stands the criteria for joining the pilots would tend to favour the large regional media players. In fact the casual reader might be forgiven for thinking that the consortia are intended to channel subsidies to the newspaper chains, a class of corporation that has not in the recent past shown any great appetite for hard-hitting journalism.

To recap, the government appears to be saying that it will use 3.5% of the license fee (around £126 million every year) to support journalism at community, regional and National levels. It wants third party ‘news consortia’ to join pilots in Scotland, Wales and one of the English regions. These consortia will need to demonstrate a track record in news provision and financial integrity. There are two kinds of criteria on which these consortia will be chosen – essential ones and desirable ones. The consortia must convince those who control the pilot scheme that they can reach an audience (‘achieve range and impact’), that they will be accurate and impartial, and that they are sufficiently robust financially to maintain high levels of service. It would be desirable if the consortia increased the amount of actual journalism, if they commissioned more investigative journalism and if they were willing to share their findings with other news organisations.

At this point it is worth noting the comments of the head of Ofcom about the likely costs of delivering a ‘straight replacement’ for ITV news. In a speech at the end of April Ed Richards estimated that it would cost between £40 and £60 million to replace existing ITV news provision:

At its most basic the new set-up could act as a straight replacement for existing provision, based upon the existing licence areas and limited to linear television. We estimate the costs of such a service to be in the region of £40-60 million.

But, he added, there were ‘more exciting possibilities that meet the aspirations of healthy local democracy, quality journalism and the needs of audiences in the digital age’. He continued:

We estimate that £60-100 million could deliver a service capable of meeting these objectives to a higher standard, providing a quality news service of impact and relevance. Additional value could be achieved through synergies and cross promotion from other media and partners in the consortium. This would differ from region to region, according to the mix of players in the successful consortium and the existing local media scene.

It is not clear what percentage of the government’s additional subsidy the consortia will eventually control, but at first glance there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for the consortia to have much in the way of 'financial stamina', unless this is simply intended to discourage genuinely regional players from forming them.

After all, elsewhere in the report the government notes that commercial institutions will ‘need to be supplemented with a range of alternative models – for example, local ownership, community media and non-profit organizations’ (p.149). It would be quite irresponsible to permit unitary consortia dominated by commercial interests to monopolise editorial decisions regarding the use of what is, after all, public money, just because they are able to demonstrate ‘business and financial integrity’. There are plenty of independent media that could use government money to expand and develop their service to the communities they serve – a unitary ‘consortium’ put together by commercial interests is unlikely to pay much more than lip service to the contribution that such players could make. Whereas a coalition of existing and new independent media providers could greatly expand its capabilities with the help of public money, and do so in ways much more likely to address the civic concerns of their publics.

Given the demonstrable failure of existing regional and local commercial news media to support civic engagement in recent decades, the government’s proposals for new forms of subsidy should be taken as no more than a point of departure at this stage. We should therefore set out measures for making political life in the Nations and the regions more accessible to the public. Increased public support for journalism can only be justified if it serves to promote a more substantive democratic culture.

Responding to Digital Britain

It is not always clear what the report has in mind. The stated aims are sometimes at odds with the means favoured. So, for example, the desire to use money to encourage the creation of 'multi-media hubs' seems to sit uneasily with the preference for established media companies as bidders to become IFNCs. As noted the prose isn’t always as clear as it might be, and the report covers a huge amount of ground. The responsibilities of the IFNCs are very vaguely set out - they are to replace ITV's regional news, but are also to other things.

The situation hasn’t always been helped by the response of the major media groups. The Guardian was at pains to note its institutional interests, even if it did tend to downplay the provisional nature of the proposals and the government’s stated desire to hear from the public. The proposals on consortia were pretty much set in stone as far as most articles were concerned:

Each consortium is likely to be made up of existing TV news providers, media organizations, several of which – including Guardian Media Group, STV and the Press Association – have already expressed an interest in the scheme.

News International objected to the extension of public support by taking the moral high ground. Its employees argued for journalistic freedom in a concerted, not to say regimented, way. Mike Darcy, the Chief Operating Officer at BSkyB condemned a ‘culture of dependency’ in British journalism. John Ryley, the head of Sky News insisted that ‘the fundamentals of journalism are independence of spirit and inquiry, which stem in part from independence of funding’. It would be easier to take his comments seriously if News International permitted anything approaching ‘independence of spirit’ in its newspapers or paid more than homeopathic amounts of tax in this country.

The Director General of the BBC has attacked plans to ‘topslice’ the TV license fee (or the BBC license fee as Sir Michael Lyons, the chairman of the BBC Trust, has a habit of calling it). The BBC enjoyed considerable support from groups who have little cause to feel grateful to the corporation and who have a great deal to gain from a more plural and more evidence-based approach to newsgathering. Both the NUJ and BECTU have spoken out against the plans. Jeremy Dear, the head of the NUJ has warned that:

Sharing the licence fee with other organisations is the start of a slippery slope towards the politicisation of the BBC. When politicians start to decide how the licence fee is divvied up, the independence and impartiality of the corporation will be put at risk. while BECTU has called for money to be levied from media groups such as Virgin and Sky, rather than from the license fee. This is a good way to boost public service provision, but politically it makes sense to argue that the licence should be democratized, since the idea of breaking the BBC's monopoly control of the licence fee is now on the agenda.

The head of Trinity Mirror, Sly Bailey, says that:

[…] we are keen to understand the proposed independently-funded news consortia and, as the pilots are expected to take place in our areas of strength, we will continue the exploratory talks we are already having with potential partners.

Since the publication of the report Trinity Mirror has announced the creation of a ‘public service reporting ’ pilot on Merseyside in a joint venture with the Press Association. Separately the Press Association has expressed an interest in developing its regional news services. According to

The Press Association, along with other commercial news providers, is investing in the development of new services and exploring opportunities to collaborate and work together in partnership to ensure the continuing provision of news services.

Meanwhile the Conservative party has announced that it wishes to strip Ofcom of its policy-making powers. Cameron must be aware that Digital Britain has deeply irritated News International and is manoeuvering to secure Murdoch's backing in the next election.

The report itself says that it hasn’t ruled out further refinements to its plans:

The Government will be open to other ideas and proposals in the consultation period which meet the objectives of maintaining a strong, independent BBC, while providing a sufficiency of sustainable, contestable funding in local, regional and Nations news. (p.144)

It is also at pains to insist that doesn’t only want to hear from the BBC Trust and from Ofcom:

There are two organisations with specific responsibilities in relation to the issue of funding plural public service provision: firstly the BBC Trust, with their responsibilities in relation to the licence fee payers and for maintaining the independence of the BBC; secondly, the independent Statutory regulator, Ofcom with its duties towards maintaining and strengthening the quality of public service television broadcasting in the UK which cover the BBC but go wider. Evidence and views from these bodies in the consultation will be vital. In addition, there are other public service bodies such as S4C and C4 Corporation whose views will be pertinent, as will those of the wider market. Most importantly [sic], however, are the views of the audiences and users who pay for these public services, and those who represent them. (p.144)

As noted above, the government’s willingness to hear from the public and to consider different approaches did not feature prominently in any of the mainstream coverage of the report, as far as I can tell. This is a shame, since it creates the impression that those who are at present ‘likely’ to form the news consortia are happy to let things proceed on their current course, in the hope of securing commercial advantage in the months to come. Either that or, in the case of News International, the absence of any commercial benefit has made them narrowly opposed to the whole idea of public support for journalism, no matter how it is managed.

In what follows I present some proposals that build on the government’s own ideas. They do not, I believe, undermine the stated goals of the report and indeed they go some way to ensure that the civic purposes of journalism are strengthened by the use of public money.

Making the Consortia Work

In the section on IFNCs the report states that:

Criteria for desirable outcomes could include the ability to raise the proportion of total activity devoted to journalism; commitments to distinctiveness and original/investigative journalism […]

These outcomes should be considered essential when judging applications for public funds to support journalism in the regions and the Nations. If the new institutions don’t deliver more original and investigative journalism than the old ITV news services, then there is no reason to give them more than the £40-60 million that Ed Richards gave as an estimate of the cost of providing a ‘straight replacement’. And, given that the report itself recognizes how much more efficient ‘new operators using new media’ would be, even the lower end of Richards’ estimate might be excessive. It would be interesting to know what resources the ITV franchises devoted to news provision five years ago and what could now be saved with new technology and infrastructure sharing with the BBC, and therefore freed up to support journalism. Our first task must be to estimate how much a straight replacement for ITV regional news would cost to put in place. This estimate should be based on the cost of the existing system while taking into account how both new technology and infrastructure sharing with the BBC can reduce costs.

The structure of the IFNCs should also be considered very carefully. At present the qualifying criteria for the pilots favour large media groups such as STV, Trinity Mirror, PA and Guardian Media Group. These large companies have already welcomed the report’s recommendations. Yet this tilt to large companies is hard to square with the report’s recognition that the commercial model will ‘need to be supplemented with a range of alternative models – for example, local ownership, community media and non-profit organizations’ (p.149). An IFNC able to demonstrate that it could achieve ‘reach and impact’ would surely have its origins in an existing network of local news organizations. There is a real danger that a consortium made up of large national and regional players would do no more than deliver an expensive simulacrum of community media, while starving innovative, responsive and cost-effective players of public money.

To repeat, the insistence on ‘financial stamina’ as an essential criterion makes no sense if the operations of the consortia could be wholly funded by public money. Of course the news consortia should be accountable for the money they receive and should be professionally and responsibly run. But they do not need to be a means by which large corporations receive subsidies from those who pay the TV license fee.

Accordingly, the government should revise its plans and separate out their two main objectives – the replacement of the existing ITV regional news and the expansion and improvement of publicly funded journalism in the regions and the Nations.

The news consortia that deliver the ITV broadcast news should be non-profit institutions, structured in a way that protects the interests of employees and the interests of their audience. They should be mandated to produce the ITV broadcast news and specific online services, using BBC technology where possible. Allowing for the sale of advertising time, infrastructure-sharing arrangements with the BBC, and the syndication of locally generated news, the public money necessary might be considerably less than the £40 million figure mentioned above.

There is no reason why these companies should be limited companies of the conventional sort – they will not investing risk capital, but will be fully supported by public money. The government should therefore make it clear that it will encourage cooperatives and employee owned corporations to come forward to take on this role. This will keep income inequality in the companies to a minimum and will prevent public money being used on a large scale to cross-subsidise commercial activity by large companies, to deliver dividends to shareholders or to pay high salaries for managers.

Employee ownership and control will help promote a diverse range of local and regional views, along with a greater sense of accountability to, and connection with, the communities, regions and Nations they serve. To repeat, given that the companies will be mandated to deliver a clearly defined service, and that they will rely wholly on public funds, the consortia should not have a profit-driven structure. The professional broadcasters employed by the consortia should concentrate on developing a wide range of formal and informal connections with the communities they serve. The consortia should pay their staff appropriately, but it is distasteful to think of public money being used to protect or increase the dividend enjoyed by private investors. As a regressive form of revenue-raising the TV license fee should be distributed with great care in order to secure socially just outcomes.

The rest of the money (£84 million per year) would be free up to support original, investigative journalism in the regions and the Nations, as directly as possible. Rather than being used to fund publishing outlets for content, this public money could be used to support the generation of that content. The emphasis should be on delivering the kinds of journalism that have become increasingly rare in the state-owned and private British media – that is, investigations in the public interest.

If more material of concern to the public is made available, then existing print and online outlets will take on the role of publisher, or new publishing ventures will be created for the purpose. The expansion and improvement in local and regional news provision needs to be content-driven. The use of public money in pursuit of objectives as vague and subject to manipulation as the creation of ‘multimedia hubs’ is, I am afraid, an invitation to endless box-ticking and bureaucratic make-work. We can be confident, however, that multimedia hubs would be created by the spontaneous operations of the market and of civil society, once an interactive system of commissioning began to deliver a steady stream of pertinent and original information on matters of common concern.

Public funds should be contestable and distributed on transparent criteria as Digital Britain frequently says. Accordingly, the lion’s share of the £84 million or so left over once the ITV’s news provision has been replaced should be made available to journalists through a system of public commissioning. An independent body would publish the proposals of journalists in particular categories – local and regional investigations, National investigations, civic reporting on 6 or 12 month contracts, and so on. The public would then vote on the proposals that it wished to see funded. To avoid voting irregularities, voting would have to take place in a library, perhaps against the background of a series of public meetings with journalists and the public.

Once a particular investigation was concluded the journalists would be obliged to publish their findings online and the body responsible for managing the process would also make their reports available in libraries in the region. The regional news consortia would be able to run reports on the material released, although other news organizations might be obliged to pay syndication fees of some kind. The journalists responsible for the reports could themselves re-use the material in different commercial contexts, according to a fixed system of rights splits with the managing bodies.

Journalists would have to cost their investigations at an agreed level, set according to NUJ guidelines on rates of pay. The aim would be to support the creation and maintenance of cadres of investigative journalists operating in the public interest. Sometimes journalists might combine into specialist teams, sometimes they might collaborate on a story-by-story basis. Though, of course, journalists would be looking for scoops of various kinds, the structure of the bidding and awards process would encourage them to ‘show their working’, in order to secure a chance of further funding when particular lines of investigation do not prove immediately fruitful. As a result a permanent mechanism for describing and explaining the structure of power at a local, regional and National level will emerge – always assuming that the public is interested in such a thing.

At present local and regional journalism takes place against a background of deepening ignorance about the institutional basis for decision-making at all levels. The public have only a vague notion of who controls the local councils, and a much vaguer notion of what decisions are taken at regional level. Politicians interact with lobbying interests in an environment all but devoid of meaningful public scrutiny. Public commissioning gives the public the power to rectify this, should they choose to do so. By removing the commissioning power from individuals with commitments to the institutions where they work, this approach will underpin public interest journalism. Indeed it will contribute to the re-creation of local, regional, and national publics, by giving people the power to secure access to the information that they consider valuable.

Anyone can bid for funding from these bodies, of course, and there is nothing to stop local media companies from using the system to fund their investigative teams, always allowing for the obligation to publish their findings via the funding body. Regional consortia could use the public commissioning system to support investigations teams who would work alongside broadcast journalists to develop news reports, and documentaries as well as online reports published by the regional commissioning body. The consortia would certainly be required to publicise the public commissioning process. The creation of coalitions of civil society groups, academics and journalists is to be expected and welcomed. The agitation for certain forms of inquiry, as well as the data thus generated, would be part of a process of political engagement and, where appropriate, reform.

Abuse of the system would be policed by actively engaged citizens. Journalists who were tempted to withhold stories in order to publish them commercially would be subject to nothing more than the risk of public disapproval. The investigations conducted would be, by definition, ‘of interest to the public’, insofar as they would be limited to those projects that could secure adequate levels of public support. It would be up to citizens to ensure that the stories supported tended to be ‘in the public interest’ as well as ‘of interest to the public’. Some might object that the public have such degraded tastes that they will end up funding trivial and intrusive journalism of the sort that fills so many popular newspapers, magazines and websites. While this attitude might seem worldly wise, there is absolutely no evidence that the public will commission, as opposed to consume, such material. To assume that they will squander what is after all their own money on the pursuit of trivia is to succumb to anti-democratic dogma of a kind that is all too common in defenders of the established order.

The public might recognise that celebrity-driven journalism needs no further public support and will prefer to commission those forms of journalism that help them to defend their interests as consumers and citizens. In order to prevent public money from being wasted in legal fees, some kind of qualified privilege could perhaps be given to journalists working on public commission. After all, they are working in a public capacity and have a right to be protected from vexatious legal attack from those they have sought to hold accountable.

If £84 million was made available to journalists by a system of direct commissioning, it would be sufficient to pay 3,500 journalists an average of £24,000 per year – enough for 318 full-time journalists, researchers and editorial support staff in each English region and devolved Nation. There are, according to knowledgeable estimates, between 75 and 125 full-time investigative reporters working in Britain as a whole at the current time. This is not sufficient to supply the public with information critical to the functioning of democracy. A well-organized transfer of funds from the digital switchover surplus could begin to address this democratic deficit in news provision. It would also build on Britain’s reputation as a world leader in the media industries, by breaking the historical bond between the commissioning process and institutional power.

In its last (2007) industry survey, the Newspaper Society reported that 11,100 editorial staff worked in regional newspapers out of a total of 37,700 full-time employees. This was down from 13,300 editorial staff out of a total of 50,000 full-time staff in 2004. Job losses in the industry have, if anything, accelerated in the regional newspaper sector and have only been partially offset by new employment opportunities in online publishing. Public support for journalism must find its way to journalists. It must not be used to prop up media conglomerates that continue to demand unsustainable profits from their properties and that retain top-heavy cost structures.

The sums the government have in mind could end up providing a useful addition to the balance sheet of Trinity Mirror, Press Association and the rest, while leaving in place a failing system of regional news provision. Or the money could support a reinvigorated investigative infrastructure that would both provide a public service and support commercial players, by providing content for use across a range of platforms and media. Wisely spent, 3.5% of the license fee could provide employment for thousands of journalists without competing with existing commercial media or with the BBC.


The government says that it wants to promote plural news provision at the local, regional and National level. This is to be welcomed by anyone who wants to become less vulnerable to various forms of state and corporate manipulation and better able to make decisions for themselves on the basis of reliable information. It is also to be welcomed by those who would like to see powerful institutions (including media institutions) subject to more effective scrutiny. Journalists also stand to benefit from a system that supports their work directly and does not leave them dependent on private owners or on employees of the state. There is a compelling case to be made for increased public support for journalism, if this increased support brings with it increased public control over the uses made of journalists’ skills. Progressives of all stripes should insist that reform takes place on lines that are publicly defensible. Public commissioning must be at the heart of any extension of public support for journalism.

It is time for trade unions and NGOs, academics and journalists, activists and interested members of the public to intervene in the consultation process and ensure that the opportunity to reinvigorate Britain’s journalistic culture is not lost.

An annotated version of this piece is available in Word or .pdf.

To respond to Digital Britain, go to:

The consultation period ends on September 22.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Nick Davies On Truth

Interesting coincidence last week. Was sent a copy of Conversations on Truth by one of the editors, Chris Wilkinson. In it there is an interview with the journalist Peter Wilby in which he talks at some length about the impact of Alistair Campbell as someone who was able for several years to dominate press coverage thanks to his intimate understanding of its structure and practices. Campbell grasped how the Sunday papers set the tone for the coming week, he knew how to browbeat and intimidate journalists, exploit the ambition and the anxieties of the younger ones in particular, and so on.

At the same time I am reading this I am reading Nick Davies's Guardian story about the, how can one put this delicately, the culture of surveillance at the News of the World under its former editor, Andy Coulson. And of course Coulson is so valuable to Cameron because he can be expected to secure a lock on much of the media as Campbell did. Plus Coulson brings the extra background of a doubtless strong relationship with Murdoch. Murdoch likes tabloid hard cases as much as he likes anyone.

So the fate of Coulson has serious implications for the politics of the next few months, perhaps for years to come. Without Coulson it is not clear that Cameron can win. Certainly the sense air of inevitable Tory victory that has been building in the media will dissipate somewhat. And perhaps more than that, perhaps the Liberals and Labour will sense in the travails of the News of the World a chance to secure a non-Conservative government and electoral reform at the next election.

If the News of the World was engaged in systemic illegal activity then Coulson will have to go and Murdoch will be vulnerable in this country for the first time in decades. Maybe Nick Davies has hit the big one. I just wonder if the British public can be persuaded to shake off its passivity at last and see that a chance now exists for a fundamental realignment in British politics. Assuming, of course, that there was systemic illegal activity at a major British newspaper. And that will be something for the courts to decide, in the end.

Although the responsibility for Murdoch and the rest is ours in the end.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Where They Are Now, An Occasional Series

David Miles, the housing market expert and member of the Monetary Policy Committee has this week said that his 'hunch' was that 'we have seen most of the aggregate house price falls'.Much of the coverage has referred respectfully to Miles' work as the author of a 2004 report on the mortgage market. Now it would be easy to make fun of the Miles Review by pointing out that it didn't notice that the mortgage market was in the grip of an unsustainable and ultimately ruinous mania while it placidly made its recommendations. In fact I think we should make fun of it for precisely that reason. Given that his remit was consider whether there had been any 'market failure' in the mortgage sector, it is a shame that he didn't spot the imminent collapse of the mortgage market in the summer of 2007.

Still, even if we overlook the failure to spot the danger of a vast bubble in the housing market, it is interesting that the Miles Review recommended that building societies be allowed to raise a higher percentage of their funds from the wholesale markets rather than from depositors' funds. It was over-reliance on wholesale funds that did for the former building society Northern Rock, remember. It also contributed to the problems at the Dunfermline and West Bromwich Building Societies. If the rest of the mutual movement had increased its use of wholesale funds as Miles recommended, who knows, we might not have any building societies left at all.

Anyway, I have a 'hunch' that, with the economy shrinking at a terrifying rate, public finances looking like a bombsite and unemployment rising rapidly, the housing market still has some way to fall.


Monday, June 29, 2009

Regulating Global Finance and the Impact on Developing Countries

Last Friday the Bretton Woods Project organised a panel debate on the financial crisis, to some extent as a briefing for those working in development NGOs, I guess. The talk took place under the Chatham House rule, so it is difficult to go into much detail concerning the differences of emphasis among the speakers. I think I can say that they divided 2:1 on the regulatory failure vs secular build-up of debt account of the origins of the crisis.

I don't think I will embarrass any of the speakers when I say that there was broad unanimity that effective regulation of the global financial system would be possible without the abolition of the banking secrecy afforded by the offshore sector. Indeed some impatience was expressed about the idea that in order to establish effective financial regulation it might be necessary to abolish the offshore sector - as though it was a distraction from the serious business of regulation.

This reluctance to recognise the role that offshore centres play in undermining financial regulation struck me as both interesting and ill-conceived. The offshore sector facilitates and encourages capital flight and enables kleptocrats to operate with a reasonable expectation of impunity. If financial regulation is to have any positive impact on the developing economies then it must surely address the massive problem of illicit capital flows into the Western banking system.

Furthermore, given the proven failure of state regulators to identify and defend the public interest, the continued existence of a machine that might be used for the furtherance of grand corruption in the developed world might be considered pertinent to a discussion of effective regulation. How do we know our politicians and regulators are honest if the means exist by which they might be bribed under conditions of perfect secrecy?

With that in mind, I started to wonder about the relevance of offshore holdings to the UK Parliament's Register of Members' Interests. The purpose of the register is "to provide information of any pecuniary interest or other material benefit which a Member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches or votes in Parliament, or actions taken in the capacity of a Member of Parliament". The receipt of benefits from offshore trusts or other financial vehicles would seem at first glance to constitute something that might reasonably be thought by others to influence a politician's actions, as they pertain to the offshore sector in particular and to financial regulation in general (pace the speakers at last week's meeting).

If we are to love and trust our elected representatives again - and how we long to do so - then it is necessary for us to know whether they have assets parked offshore, regardless of their provenance. Reasonable people can disagree as to whether the use of offshore facilities is consistent with working as a representative of the British people, but we must be able to go about our business secure in the knowledge that our MPs are not being bribed by shadowy business interests.

I am not saying that they are - I am just saying that we have a right to know whether our representatives are taking advantage of a system that facilitates tax avoidance and evasion on an epic scale, given that their involvement in the offshore economy might reasonably be thought to influence their actions.