Saturday, September 12, 2009

Responding to "Digital Britain"

Introduction

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.
(p.156-7)

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 www.how-do.co.uk:

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.

Conclusion

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:

http://www.culture.gov.uk/reference_library/media_releases/6246.aspx/

The consultation period ends on September 22.

Sign Up to Campaign for Media Reform and Public Commissioning –

http://public-commissioning.socialgo.com/

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