Tue 21 September 2021

The stench of corruption could hardly be stronger, says Brian Cathcart, on the bung Boris Johnson’s Government is giving to his employers in the British press.

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The whole affair could hardly be more sleazy and murky, but the truth is now clear: the Government is giving tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to the corporate press, including the Daily Mail and the Sun.

Although no formal announcement has been made and no public explanation has been given, this is a direct, secretly-negotiated subsidy provided exclusively to members of the News Media Association (NMA), the umbrella body for the corporations that own most of the national and regional press.

Millions of pounds are thus going to groups owned by billionaires of questionable tax standing, and millions more to the three big asset-stripping companies responsible for devastating the local press.

Meanwhile, independent news publishers – of whom there are hundreds up and down the country, reaching many millions of readers – have been cut out of the arrangement and are set to receive none of the cash. When confronted about this in Parliament, the best Media Minister John Whittingdale could do was say he would think about it.

There is undoubtedly a crisis across the industry unless you are a member of the club of multi-million-pound corporations close to the Conservative Party.

The subsidy, proudly unveiled by the NMA here, takes the form of a special, sustained programme of COVID-19-related advertising by the Government, set to last three months.

It is striking that, although Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove was quoted in the NMA announcement, no official statement on this use of public money has been made to Parliament.

The NMA claims that ‘all regional and national’ news brands benefit, but that is just not true.

The Government actually talked to two bodies which represent large numbers of independent (non-NMA) news publishers – the Independent and Community News Network and the Public Interest News Foundation – but they are getting none of this cash.

In other words, while there is undoubtedly a crisis across the industry, unless you are a member of the club of multi-million-pound corporations close to the Conservative Party you get no help through this package. And how much is the package worth? The Government isn’t saying, but it is certainly in the tens of millions.

The stench of corruption could hardly be stronger. In a real democracy, no single political party – in government or otherwise – would ever be allowed to dish out money to news organisations that are supposed to scrutinise its activities on behalf of the public. State advertising of this kind has an ignoble history in this country – it was one of the ways King George III kept newspapers loyal.

As for the newspapers themselves, every one of them should now carry an announcement on the front page saying that they have been selected by ministers to receive a direct state subsidy – as an indication to readers that they can have no pretensions to being independent.

That this should happen not only without public consultation, transparency or accountability of any kind only deepens the scandal. Indeed the evasion went further. When I inquired about the meetings with the NMA over a week ago, Whittingdale’s spokesman repeatedly refused to answer me.

And that Whittingdale and Gove have their fingerprints all over this shameful arrangement is the icing on the sleaze cake. Whittingdale is hopelessly compromised by his past relations with the NMA and its members. Gove is a confidant and former long-time employee of Rupert Murdoch.


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