Hard cases make bad law: Polly Toynbee on state aid for the regional press

I reckon that if you added all of Polly Toynbee’s cries for further investment to existing public sector expenditure, the result would equate to something 120% of GDP.

But the poor are always with us, and the list of deserving causes is long. So it was that yesterday morning, Toynbee waded into the crisis laying waste to the regional press.

As newspaper bosses and trade unionists prepared to ratchet up their lobbying efforts with a series of relatively modest proposals, the Guardian columnist went further, suggesting that the government set up a framework for ‘local trust ownership’of local newspapers.

What is ‘local trust ownership”? Does it involve charitable status? Tax breaks? Private sector or public sector participation? And how would entrepreneurial investors get involved? Would there be specific assistance for web-based start-ups?

The answers to these questions are fairly important. Without them, the idea of ‘local trust ownership’could include your local council’s Pravda-style freesheet becoming the de facto newspaper for your community.

Presumably, it could also include outright nationalisation if the likes of Johnston Press find it hard to achieve going concern status later this year.

Swatting aside fine detail of this kind, Toynbee argued that she would like to see local newspapers receive some of the public money that would otherwise go to fund local news bulletins produced by ITV (‘awful”) and the BBC (‘shamingly bad”).

She’d also like to see trust-based local newspapers receive ‘a small subvention from council tax”. In return, the local trusts envisaged by Toynbee would have obligations to ‘good reporting, fair rules and open access”.

Some of what Toynbee suggests is both possible and desireable. (For example, ministers should have asked Ofcom to investigate and recommend alternative ownership structures long ago. Yes, I know that Ofcom doesn’t regulate the press. But does anyone believe that the old demarcation lines remain valid?)

Diverting public service broadcasting subsidies could work (possibly along these lines). In fact, I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more discussion about it. But other suggestions are simply not going to happen (council tax funding, for example). 

These ideas aren’t new. The more relevant point here is that Toynbee reveals herself as a member of the raise-it-to-the-ground constituency. She believes — as Jeff Jarvis does and Maximilien Robespierre did -– that the current structure of ownership must be (largely) destroyed before something new can take its place.

Toynbee has three reasons for thinking this. The first is deterministic: why save industry structures that are almost certainly doomed? Further consolidation, Toynbee reckons, won’t solve the industry’s long-term revenue problem.

Her second reason is judgemental. Some local papers, Toynbee writes, are ‘dross’and therefore deserve to go to the wall. Public money should be applied to the problem only after we’ve had a clear-out. (The echoes of various banking rescues are strong here.)

Finally, there’s the political rationale. Toynbee believes that a catastrophic collapse is required in order to get rid of the managers who ‘cry press freedom’whenever public subsidy is mentioned.

In the end, I’m left with two problems with Toynbee’s proposal. The first should be obvious.

Hanging around in order to get rid of the bosses who currently resist public subsidy will inflict one hell of a cost on journalists and other employees.

The carnage would make the cuts we’re witnessing today look ridiculously modest. There’s a vast amount that can government and regulators can achieve without waiting for Armageddon.

The second is the likely public reaction to the idea of subsidised local newspapers.

Late yesterday evening, Toynbee’s article had attracted 210 comments. I counted 17 that were supportive of her proposal (and most of these came from a group of three or four readers, the majority of whom were journalists).

Admittedly, examining user-generated content at Comment Is Free probably isn’t the best way to assess public opinion. But I think that the negative intensity of so many of the replies tells its own story.

In amongst the random Toynbee-bashing and squawks of outrage about ‘highly-paid journalists”, I detected at least three main reasons for opposition:
  

  • We’re in a recession. We can’t afford to eradicate child poverty –- and you want to give public money to newspapers? No way.
     
  • In commercial terms, the internet is killing newspapers. . . but that’s how business works. Why waste scarce money attempting to keep a doomed industry on life support? The market will provide. . .
     
  • Local newspapers have already declined to an alarming extent in editorial terms. Cost-cutting managers compromised reader loyalty years ago. What remains is not worth saving.
     

Whether your position on society’s attitude towards journalists resembles this or this, it’s obvious that advocating the state-aided rescue of local newspapers is going be a one hell of a tricky proposition.

It remains to be seen whether this government has the guts to propose it.

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