With Boris Johnson handing out millions of pounds of public money to subsidise a cheerleading press, Brian Cathcart says that the corruption is so brazen it takes your breath away.
So many dreadful things are happening at the moment that no one can keep track, but please take a moment to consider some developments in the UK press, the consequences of which may be truly appalling.
We know that the Government is providing many millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to help the corporate press through the COVID-19 crisis. Less obvious is that, by denying similar help to independent news publications, ministers and their press friends are conducting a kind of cull.
Seats on the subsidy life-raft are reserved for the News Media Association (NMA), the corporate press club in which most members have turnovers exceeding £100 million. The rest are being told to swim for it or sink.
This approach privileges the corrupt past over the innovative future; it helps lumbering, legacy brands while allowing the COVID-19-induced crises of circulation and advertising to sweep away smaller outfits that are far more innovative and free-thinking.
The winners here are the Sun, the Mail, The Times, the Telegraph, the Mirror, the Express, The Guardian – and the big asset-strippers that have so devastated the regional press: Reach, Newsquest and JPMedia.
The chief losers are hundreds of local and hyper-local titles with turnovers below £1 million — many of them staffed by cast-off journalists from Reach, Newsquest etc. and many of them lean, fit, creative and closer to their readers than any of the corporate papers could dream of. Some are more than local titles and they may well contain the seeds of future quality journalism to rival or replace legacy titles in the future — assuming they are not killed off now.
And what have these outfits been denied — by a Government that is led by a former employee of the Telegraph and The Times, and which is kept afloat by dishonest propaganda gushing from most of the NMA titles every day?
A single political party, in Government, is exploiting its executive power to channel large amounts of public money to a legacy press industry which overwhelmingly supports it.
First, a £35 million state advertising bonus — from taxpayers’ funds – that was exclusive to the NMA. Some of this largesse has gone to the Sun and the Daily Mail. So far, it has paid for wrap-around advertisements about COVID-19 precautions and advertisement features about ‘community heroes’. All very worthy, no doubt. But make no mistake – this is a subsidy or a ‘partnership’. The NMA and the Society of Editors have been open, even triumphant, about that. It follows desperate lobbying by these bodies about the plight of their industry, so no wonder they boast of it as a victory.
What they don’t say, is that hundreds of other news publications that are no less affected by the COVID-19 crisis lobbied ministers alongside them at a succession of meetings but, when the deal was made, they were ruthlessly cut out of it. Of the £35 million, only a few hundred pounds have so far been handed to non-NMA members.
And the ad money is only a stop-gap. The real bonus for the corporate press is the zero-rating for VAT of online publications, brought forward by seven months especially because of the COVID-19 crisis. It is worth hundreds of millions of pounds for the corporate press and delivers almost no benefits for smaller-scale, independent publications.
The corruption involved here is so brazen it takes the breath away. A single political party, in Government, is exploiting its executive power to channel large amounts of public money to a legacy press industry which overwhelmingly supports it. At the same time, that party is denying help to smaller newcomers to the business which, if saved, could represent the future of quality journalism, but which may well not survive without help. If Vladimir Putin did this in Russia, we would not be surprised.
Of course, there is window-dressing to make it look like something it is not. So some of the money goes to The Guardian, a critic of the Government, and some is spent on public health advertisements, which might do some good. Putin would have done that too, because he is no fool.
But nothing can hide the corruption. This is, as the latest research tells us, the least trusted written press in Europe, by a country mile. Much of it is owned by billionaires of dubious tax status and the rest is large corporations, almost all of which have disgraceful records.
In the Sun and the Mirror, for example, taxpayers’ money is now supporting newspapers that spend tens of millions of pounds every year fighting off and buying off claims from the victims of their phone-hacking past. In Reach, Newsquest and JPMedia, it is helping companies that have closed more titles and sacked more journalists than the Coronavirus crisis could achieve if it lasted all year.
These are also organisations which strained every muscle to ensure the election of Boris Johnson’s Government, often publishing propaganda of astonishing dishonesty. And now, while they promote a cult of personality worthy of an Idi Amin, a Mobutu or a Mugabe (‘Boris Bounces Back To Get UK Moving’ declared the Sun, and ‘He’s Got Daddy’s Hair’ announced the Mail on Sunday), they are also working overtime to gaslight the country into believing that the pandemic has been brilliantly handled and that any hitches were the fault of the Health Secretary Matt Hancock and his philandering scientists.
In other words, by throwing your PAYE money and mine at these companies, the Government is investing in its own future – helping the only organisations capable of rescuing it from the consequences of its deadly COVID-19 bungling.
It is strangling democracy.