Brian Cathcart explains why the press asking for public money to help them through the Coronavirus pandemic must follow the same reasoning they applied to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.
There is a fine irony in coincidence. For the past few years, the principal justification deployed by the UK’s national newspapers for hounding the Duke and Duchess of Sussex has been that they lived off the public purse.
Because taxpayers were funding their luxury royal lifestyle, we were told, the couple were accountable to the public so the Mail, the Sun and others claimed the right to place whatever demands on them they chose.
It was in an attempt to escape this trap that the couple severed most of their links with this country and announced that they would move towards financial self-sufficiency.
But what’s this? The very same press industry is now desperately begging for public subsidy – that’s your money and mine – because it can’t cope in the COVID-19 crisis. Yes, they want taxpayer funding just like the Sussexes had.
By their own rules, surely, that means that the press are making themselves accountable to the public. If we give them what they want, it follows that we get the right to place demands on them just like they did on the Sussexes, right?
Today, Harry and Meghan, far away in Los Angeles, have shut the door on the UK tabloid press and placed a permanent ‘no comment’ sign in the window for them. In an eloquent statement, they expressed despair at the relentless dishonesty, distortions and unjustified intrusions of the Sun, the Mail, the Express and the Mirror.
Not only are they entirely within their rights – no private citizen has an obligation to communicate with news media – but who can blame them?
They have done what they were asked to do, even to the point where Prince Harry – surely one of the most conspicuous of all British assassination targets after his military service in Afghanistan – no longer receives the kind of security protection routinely guaranteed to ex-Prime Ministers who can be of little interest to terrorists.
But let’s get back to the press and the begging bowl.
Not One Rule for Them and One for Us
The press are lobbying the Government for all they are worth. A secret meeting was held with Media Minister John Whittingdale last week, and the Sun, for example, has been pushing its tale of woe on social media.
A dozen years ago, the press purported to mock and despise the idea of press subsidies – that was for losers. But now they are the losers, with collapsing print sales and advertising revenues. So they want your help. And, make no mistake, they don’t just want a bung today – they want long-term taxpayer support.
(In a sense, they have been receiving taxpayer support since at least the 1940s. Newspapers are zero-rated for VAT (and before that Purchase Tax), which means that every year the Exchequer has waived hundreds of millions in revenue from press companies, but the press never mention this public largesse).
To repeat: by the rules they themselves applied to the Sussexes – and have often applied to others on the public payroll (not, I should say, without justification in many cases) – if they receive money, they place themselves under an obligation to the taxpayers.
And the problem with that is that we are being asked to subsidise an industry that is largely owned by disreputable corporations, that is failing us in dozens of ways, that causes untold harm to vulnerable people and minorities with complete impunity and that is also, in some ways, actively corrupt.
This is not to say that the public should not help to sustain journalism, but we need to be careful. We must not subsidise organisations owned by billionaires and tax-dodgers. And we must not subsidise organisations that cause harm to our fellow-citizens without being properly accountable.
Accountability and Serving the Public Interest
The National Union of Journalists has what seems a generally sound proposal for state aid, focused more on actual journalists than their employers.
Absent from that plan, however, are two things. First, no one political party, even in government, should ever have the power to decide on journalism subsidies. That throws the door wide open to undue influence. Any steps should have to command cross-party support.
The NUJ also fails to insist on reform of regulation. Are we really going to subsidise an industry that simply ignored the findings of the Leveson Inquiry, the votes of all parties in Parliament and the wish of the public (demonstrated countless times in polls) that there should be effective press regulation that is independent of political influence?
Are we really going to subsidise an industry that boasts of a code of practice but doesn’t stick to it – and that does its level best to conceal this fact from the public?
Are we really going to subsidise an industry that tolerates, indeed helps to cover-up, gross and harmful abuses in its own ranks – the activities of Andrew Norfolk of the Times, for example, or the cruelty inflicted upon Danielle Hindley?
No. There must be accountability.
If these organisations want public money, they must start respecting the public they are supposed to serve. Remember – as the Mail and the Sun would undoubtedly be pointing out if this were about the Sussexes – some of that money will come from PAYE taxes levied on nurses, doctors and bus drivers.
what the papers don’t say
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