Brian Cathcart argues that, while journalism is in crisis because of COVID-19, subsidies to untrustworthy newspaper proprietors are not the answer.
The press billionaires want your money. Or, to be precise, they want the Government to give them your money. They are taking a financial hit and they smell public subsidies in the air for other industries damaged by COVID-19 so, greedy as ever, they want a share.
To achieve this, they are playing their usual tricks. First, they tell you they are vital and trusted sources of information in imminent danger of collapse. They often accompany this with a reference to the comparative evils of ‘social media’.
Second, they hide behind the stricken local press and pretend that this is really about the worthy, hard-up, understaffed newspaper around the corner that struggles to serve your community, year in and year out.
And third, they try to make it about the jobs of their journalists – hard-working, highly-skilled people dedicated to public service who have families and who will go hungry if the Government does not provide them with a big bail-out.
When Rebekah Brooks, the Murdoch CEO, ‘resigned’ briefly in 2012, her compensation was £10.9 million. Piers Morgan was actually sacked from the Daily Mirror in 2004 and he received a pay-off of £1.7 million.
We need a reality check here. The truth is that much of our newspaper industry is corrupt and it is never right to subsidise corruption.
In other words, not one penny of public money – that is to say the money paid in taxes now and in the future by you and me – should be given to support the corporate press in this country until a lot of things are cleared up, in particular, until we have a much better picture of who is genuinely needy and worthy of support.
Billionaires in Need of Cash?
We need to remember that the biggest titles – the Sun, the Mail, the Telegraph and the Times – have proprietors who are genuine billionaires; that they are individuals and come from families worth thousands of millions of pounds. And those billionaires and their companies pay their taxes only where it suits them, which means that they pay the least they can manage in the UK.
Before we hand them any money that has been paid as taxes by nurses and bus drivers in this country, we need to be certain that (a) none of the cash will swell the personal coffers of the Murdochs, Rothermeres and Barclays, (b) they themselves have spent everything they can afford to keep their newspapers going, and (c) in the future, they will pay all the tax that they should in this country – no more Channel Islands, no more Bermuda, no more Delaware.
Bear in mind here that these companies already benefit from a very big tax break which you and I have generously been giving them for decades. Newspapers are zero-rated for VAT, which means that we waive the tax revenue we might have had from their sale. That alone is worth hundreds of millions to the press industry every year and the same bonus has just been extended to online operations.
Bear in mind too that they pay some very high salaries and throw money around when it suits them. Boris Johnson, we know, received in excess of £250,000 a year to write once a week for the Telegraph and there must be at least a dozen columnists currently in that pay grade.
Big-name political and sportswriters also tend to be very well rewarded as, of course, are executives including legal executives. When Rebekah Brooks, CEO of the Murdoch News International (now NewsUK), ‘resigned’ briefly in 2012, her compensation was £10.9 million. Piers Morgan was actually sacked from the Daily Mirror in 2004 and he received a pay-off of £1.7 million.
There can be no question of giving our taxes to companies which spend money in this fashion, without first requiring substantial change. For example, these newspapers gloried in the forced exposure of high salaries for on-screen talent at the BBC. The argument then was that it was public money. So, before any subsidies are paid to the press, it must in turn show and tell, and then the public can decide what is good value.
The Deficit of Public Trust
There is then the question of trust. Whatever they say, these companies, their brands and their journalists, are simply not trusted.
When YouGov asked people in 2016 whether they would trust a red-top journalist to tell the truth, only 7% of those surveyed said that they would. Only 14% of those surveyed said that they would trust a mid-market journalist from, say, the Mail. When Eurobarometer asked people in 34 European countries whether they trusted their written press, the UK came third from last (in fact, it has a long record of coming last).
Compared to people in almost any other walk of life, compared to the broadcast journalists of the BBC, ITV and Sky – and compared to print journalists elsewhere in Europe – our national newspaper journalists are not trusted sources of information; instead they are very actively distrusted.
The reason is obvious: they lie. The billionaire papers have no commitment to accuracy and honesty; on the contrary, they are happy to print brazen falsehoods and to wage campaigns of hatred against vulnerable minorities – and their press ‘regulator’ IPSO indulges them at every turn. The public can see this.
This being the case, how could any Chancellor justify subsidising them? How could demonstrably untrusted and untrustworthy people be allowed to receive money paid as taxes by ordinary citizens on PAYE incomes? It would be an outrage.
As for the contrast between newspaper brands and social media, it is false. Just about the only thing in the media world that shows up in surveys as less trusted than the UK national press is ‘social media’, so the newspapers never fail to dwell on the shortcomings of Facebook and Twitter. But, in reality, for the Mail, the Sun and others, Facebook and Twitter are the new print – they have become the chief platforms on which they pump out their distrusted information, day after day.
Some of this, by way of example, includes dangerous and damaging disinformation about COVID-19, vigorously promoted by titles and reporters through their Twitter and Facebook accounts, using the most flagrant clickbait trickery.
So when we talk about disinformation on social media – and there is a lot of it – we are talking about a social blight to which UK national newspapers are important contributors. They are part of ‘social media’, not some kind of alternative. Who could subside that?
Plight of Local Newspapers A Creation of their Own
The demise of local press is a tragedy of long-standing, which was not created by the Coronavirus pandemic. But, when the industry talks about the ‘local press’, it wants you to think of a heroic little outfit in a small town with a hard-working staff who are in tune with the needs and habits of the community and who deliver, not just information, but also social cohesion and identity.
In reality, the press industry has been furiously trashing that entire culture for decades. Three rapacious multi-million-pound corporations – Reach, Newsquest and JPMedia – have been rolling through the local and regional press industry like asset strippers, sacking journalists by the thousand and closing titles by the hundred.
Year after year, these three have banked handsome operating profits which, to a striking degree, they have spent outside the local and regional newspaper industry. Reach paid something like £200 million for the Express titles – daily newspapers – while ploughing untold millions into defending its phone hacking record in court. Newsquest ships its profits to its giant US owner Gannett. The troubled JP Media has to service huge debts built up in a wild spell of acquisitions in the past.
So, if your local paper has been closed or moved to a city miles away and stripped of local staff and content, it is at least as likely that this was done to pay off a banker, to satisfy an American shareholder or to reward a barrister defending phone hacking, as it was because your town or district could not support decent journalism.
Don’t fall for the billionaires’ shameless subsidy-grab. It’s a con. And don’t allow it to happen. Make noise.
What Should Happen
Surely, you must be thinking, there is a real problem for journalism in the COVID-19 crisis and we need to keep decent, honest journalism alive?
There is and we should. But – as these newspapers are always quick to insist in the context of other benefit claimants – we must weed out the scroungers from those genuinely deserving of support. And we must do so with a clear eye on the future.
It would be folly, for example, to support print for print’s sake. Long before COVID-19 came along, print sales were falling so fast that it was clear that several national titles would soon have to stop publishing on paper. On its present trajectory, for example, the Mirror is doomed to achieve zero sales around 2025 and the Sun probably the following year.
If the public purse is to be used to invest in this industry rather than to keep its proprietors, executives, editors and columnists in the style to which they have become accustomed, we need to know that the money is spent on something that will endure and deliver a recognisable public good in the form of responsible, accurate public interest journalism.
It is also vital that we know that the distribution of this money is not in party-political hands. Ministers, of whatever party, cannot use our cash to reward or bribe news publishers who largely support them – that would be outright public corruption of a kind reminiscent of the reign of George III. Everything about this must be handled on strictly independent, non-party lines.
Unfortunately, the Government has recently passed up the opportunity to create an agency that could perform this task. Even though it was recommended by the Cairncross Review – set up by the Government itself – ministers chose to bin the Institute for Public Interest News.
This would have been something like the Arts Council for news. Free of any influence from politicians or media billionaires, and well-funded from a variety of sources including the Treasury, it would have worked to foster a high-quality, public-interest news supply.
This would not mean subsidising big news publishers and letting them get on with it. It would mean helping news operations that do not come lumbered with the same baggage and expensive superstructures. Ones with a greater commitment to honesty and fairness. Ones more adapted to the 21st Century. They exist, including at a local level.
Another simple and perhaps quicker measure by which news publishers could make themselves more eligible for public funds – and this applies to the non-billionaire press such as the Guardian and the Mirror – is to accept the standard of independent regulation that was recommended by the Leveson Inquiry and endorsed by all parties in Parliament (including the Conservatives) in 2013.
It would not be a panacea for the dire problems of inaccuracy, discrimination and bullying that blight the national press, but it would be a start. The public would at least know that news publishers that breached the code of practice would be genuinely accountable to an independent, effective body that was as airtight against political interference as our constitution allows. (And much more airtight than IPSO).
If newspapers want money, they should show that they are not afraid of such accountability either by joining IMPRESS, the existing Leveson-compliant regulator, or by setting up a regulator of their own that meets the standards. An honest Chancellor would make that a condition of any subsidy.
Yes, COVID-19 has brought with it a crisis for many news publishers and many fine, hard-working journalists. But, the answer to that crisis is not to give billionaires cash that comes out of ordinary people’s taxes.
Let the billionaires exhaust their own funds and pay their own taxes first. Let them make their practices and finances accessible and transparent to taxpayers. Let them make their journalism properly accountable.
And, no matter how grave or urgent the crisis, we must never, ever allow a Chancellor to use subsidies to reward his party’s media supporters.