Scandal or the public purse: How to underwrite the cost of journalism?

At first, the concatenation of Paul Dacre and Alan Rusbridger at the front of Monday’s Media Guardian looked a bit like one of those combinations the Dulux Colour Wheel warns you against.

Lime green and purple. Or brown and blue.

The extract from Dacre’s speech to the Society of Editors was mostly a rant against the encroachments of privacy law. (Full speech here.)

By contrast, Rusbridger argued that Britain’s local newspapers should join the lengthening queue of industries seeking a government bail out.

Colour is only skin deep. Dacre and Rusbridger were arguing on behalf of completely incompatible philosophies of ownership. But both maintain that society needs to pay a price to sustain the newspaper industry.

In Dacre’s view, society must put up with regular invasions of privacy, and the resulting salacious exclusives, if newspapers are to have a commercial future. He doubts whether mass circulation newspapers can survive if they aren’t free to write about scandal.

The encroachments of privacy law, he suggests, are therefore a direct threat to the “reporting and analysis of public affairs” conducted by the popular press.

Rusbridger argues for another kind of subsidy. He can’t see why local newspapers shouldn’t feed at the trough of public subsidy alongside the BBC.

If ITV no longer wants to adhere to its public service remit, government should think about giving the money to local newspapers.

Who is to say that Channel 4 (not to mention some aspects of the BBC output) is any more deserving of state funding than those responsible for the sometimes humdrum, but essential, task of keeping people informed about what their local councils, courts, police, health and fire services are up to?

If there’s going to be a digital switchover surplus shouldn’t local newspapers be in with a shout, rather than shuffling the money around a limited pool of broadcasters – who are, in any event, rather urgently re-inventing themselves as digital content providers?

The real importance of both these pieces is their timing. Perhaps a real — and long overdue — debate about the future of news media may be about to start.

Unsurprisingly, the recession is going to be the catalyst. That, plus the doings of Ofcom, Mr Justice Eady and Lord Carter of Barnes.

Rusbridger can see it coming: “As the mists clear from the banking crisis it’s not clear if many MPs are aware of the potential for a similar one on their own doorsteps.”

He’s right about that. The real question, however, is whether anyone really cares about the fate of a business whose practitioners regularly rank below estate agents in terms of public esteem.

We might be about to find out.

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