Last week Steve Richards, the head of Ofcom, proposed a new funding model
for ITV's regional news. Rather than leaving it to ITV franchises struggling in an advertising recession, we should use public money to fund ‘news consortia’. These news consortia ‘would operate transparently, through a tender process and contracts awarded against clear criteria of delivering public purposes’. He thinks that £40 to £60 million would be needed to provide a ‘straight replacement’ for the existing ITV service. But £60 to £100 million could ‘meet the aspirations of healthy local democracy, quality local journalism and the needs of audiences in the digital age’. More than that, the extra money could be used ‘to design in full cross-media capability’. Presumably he has noticed that local newspapers are being eviscerated by online competition. Richards suggests that there is some money somewhere in the BBC that could be used for this purpose.
It is certainly high time we looked again at how journalism is funded. But the devil as always is in the details. Richards soothingly suggests that ‘we should not get unduly distracted by who the awarding body should be’, before mentioning Ofcom’s Content Board as possible candidate. But the way in which funding is awarded is crucial to successful media reform. If control remains in the hands of a bureaucracy, the deficiencies in local news coverage documented by Nick Davies
, Jonathan Cook
, and others will be replicated, with a bit of state manipulation thrown in for good measure.
Maybe we should set aside £40 million to provide a ‘straight replacement’ for ITV’s local news coverage. But the other £60 million should be made available to investigative journalists who wish to pursue the kinds of stories that the public want.
The money could be provided to funds covering the existing ITV regions, to smaller units, and, what the hell, to a national investigative journalism fund. ‘Consortia’ of journalists could then publish proposals for funding at an appropriate level of detail. The proposals could outline their credentials and relevant experience, the aims of the investigation, the time needed and the budget. Each of us could register and vote for the projects that we wished to see pursued and the funds would then be released. Voting could take place at the local library, perhaps, to prevent people from supporting whimsical projects. The journalists’ ‘consortia’ would then publish their findings online and make them available on license to other media providers (newspapers, websites, and so on).
The public could vote further funds to projects that they valued and the ‘consortia’ that came up with the goods would be able then to work to bring their work to a wider audience via broadcast, print or online media as appropriate. Book publishers could pick up rights to publish print editions of particularly successful and significant investigations.
In this way we would have a direct role in editorial decision-making, without the doubtless well-intentioned interference of a mediating bureaucracy like, say, Ofcom. Public money wouldn’t be spent subsidising the established media groups. Instead journalists would be motivated to serve a mass constituency at a local, regional or national level, without the worry of keeping employers and advertisers happy.
Some of this magic £100 million could be used to fund local and regional print and online media, too, like the Salford Star
, so that the findings of these publicly funded investigations can find their back to the widest possible public. The investigations could provide content for a flourishing culture of pamphleteering, publishing and civic engagement.
Journalists in this country could regain their old eminence as tribunes of the people, and have a laugh asking powerful people impertinent questions. Grizzled burnouts could get to hang out with doe-eyed bloggers
. Think of it. Instead of churnalism, we could have properly funded investigations into corruption and conflicts of interest throughout the body politic. Assuming we could be bothered to vote for them – and the beauty of the system is that only the most earnest people will get it together to go to the library and vote.
Local journalism is in serious trouble. But its problems will not be solved by an extension of the existing public service model. The curiosity of journalists needs to be set free from commercial and state interests and connected more directly with the needs of a sovereign public. The same applies to our national media. The BBC is hamstrung by considerations of balance, the private media groups by their reliance on advertising and the often wacky views of their owners. The result has been a series of failures to describe reality accurately to most of the viewing and reading public. These failures have already cost taxpayers tens of billions and will cost incalculable billions more in the years ahead..
It is time to set journalists free. God help us, they’re all we’ve got.