An idea so stupid it might just fly

With talk across the spectrum of the British polity of so-called “public goods”, it should surprise no-one that that a senior broadsheet journalist has jumped on the bandwagon, calling for newspapers to be subsidised “to protect great journalism”. Some in the National Union of Journalists appear to take the idea seriously, and a call for public subsidy will form part of a motion at the forthcoming NUJ Delegate Meeting in Newcastle.

David Leigh has taken this silliness a step further, in proposing that the proceeds of a two quid a month levy on broadband subscriptions be distributed based on the UK online readership of the newspapers in question. Not newspaper sales, but website click-throughs.

This would of course benefit Leigh’s Guardian greatly, given that it was the Guardian‘s Comment is Free website which blazed the trail for free-to-access online op-ed journalism and pseudo-blogging, arguably at the expense of news reporting (aka proper journalism). I should know, as for a couple of years following its inception in 2006 I used to write for Comment is Free, and much of what I contributed is crap. The old adage that you get what you pay for runs true enough.

Other publications such as the Mail and Telegraph have followed the Guardian example, while the bulk of Times Newspapers content is hidden behind a pay-wall. Say what you will about Murdoch and his business and employment practices, but the quality of comment journalism in the Times has not deteriorated in the same way it has at the Guardian.

As for the detail of newspaper subsidies, Leigh provides some rough figures by way of illustration. For example, the Telegraph Group, Associated Newspapers and the Guardian Media Group would each receive in the region of 20% of the subsidy, which equates to around £100 million a year in hard cash. Very nice.

From a cursory glance at the comments following Leigh’s Guardian article, I see that the public subsidy proposal is given short shrift by the more considered contributors, of which there are a few in Guardianland. But then, since publishers rarely consider what their customers think (other than as regards shopping habits), I can see the subsidy idea forming part of media industry lobbying of government. After all, if the state is willing to throw good public money after bad bankers and the like, why not publishers too?

Should journalists support the public subsidy of newspapers? With editorial budgets being slashed across the industry it is certainly tempting. Subsidies could save our sorry journalistic arses, but it is a monumentally bad idea based on thoroughly unsound thinking.

For one thing the media is not a public good per se. Sorting good media from bad is surely a task for the consumers of our product, and, given that bad journalism attracts online comment more readily than the “great journalism” beloved of David Leigh, online readership is a poor metric for quality control and public pot-sharing.

Worst of all, the thought of state subsidy of a supposedly free press gives me the ethical willies.