Time for a media funding revolution

Serious journalism is in dire financial straits. All its business models are under threat. It’s time for the literate, affluent, bossy middle class to club together and fix things. They did it for buildings and landscape. Now they can do it for the national debate.

The two broadcast regulators are due to tell us what they think the future is for serious broadcasting: Ofcom delivers its Public Service Broadcasting review on 21 January and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport its Digital Britain report on 26 January.

Here’s my pitch.

I used to think that we needed a National Trust of the Airwaves to get broadcasting out of the state’s hands. That was one possibility I floated in “Scrap the BBC!”, written for the Social Affairs Unit in 2007. Now, I think I was too timid, as usual.

Actually, we need a National Media Trust which could fund any media, anywhere. This is especially necessary for serious journalism

The reason is that the platforms for journalism have problems across the board. Most obviously the BBC is hogging however many billions of “public” money (yours). Channel 4 is openly begging for a share of it. All the commercial channels fear for their advertising revenues and say it’s the good stuff will go first. Everyone is eyeing the web and testing it out in the face of a massive BBC presence.

That’s the electrics. Print is in a bad way, too. The recession hits their advertising and the availablility of suitable millionaires (the presses’ old standy). The quality press (especially the Telegraph) is dumbing down.

The broadcasters will huff and puff, but will have to shrink their output. That won’t matter much. There’s too much repetitive, formulaic stuff anyway.

The print media likewise will shrink: we will presumably lose titles. The world without the Independent (say) would not be a much worse place.

But the reason we need not mourn the demise of a few channels or titles is that we can imagine and institute much better ways of delivering media.

It’s important to remember that it is journalism that matters, not which platform or even employer it has.

The web and satellite and cable stand ready to broadcast any of the material which the public wants but which existing channels and printing presses don’t.

We should be thinking of funding reporters, commentators – or anything else we fancy – in quite different ways.

I imagine a National Media Trust funding particular aspects of the existing wire services, so they can cover issues and territories which are under-represented. The NMT could fund columnists or bloggers. It could fund micro-TV channels to do great interviews. (If Clive James can do it, so can others, with a wider agenda.)

The existing institutions and firms (and even the regulators) may well fight this proposal. They would wouldn’t they? They are stuffed with overpaid people who have made careers out of the existing system, and they might well not thrive in a leaner environment.

They are defending bailiwicks, not output.

It’s just an idea. But let’s imagine 10 million people subscribing £150 a year to ensure that the UK remains a world leader in information, debate and drama. I know, it’s only £1.5bn. But it would be a transformative £1.5bn.

Where would the money come from? Scrap the TV licence fee, and it’s right there – without the poor having to divvy up anything.

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Publication date

17 January 2009