Why David Leigh's broadband tax plan is bonkers

Just a few of the reasons why this journalism subsidy wouldn't work.

I'm not sure if Guardian journalist David Leigh is being completely serious with his plan for a £2 a month levy on all broadband bills to subsidise journalism.

But here are a few reasons why I think the scheme is bonkers.

He proposes that the £500m a year windfall should be split between publishers depending on the size of their web audience.

So it means already highly profitable titles like the Daily Mail and The Sun would get £100m and £50m a year respectively in order to justify highly loss-making titles like The Guardian getting their beaks wet.

Under the Leigh system The Times - in my opinion just as fine and campaigning a newspaper as The Guardian  - would get nothing, because it has had the temerity to experiment with an alternative model and sought to charge readers to access its content online.

Regional newspapers, doing  the incredibly important job of holding local power to account, would get little - because reports of town and city council meetings are never going to drive as many web eyeballs as pictures of scantily-clad reality TV stars on the beach.

And while £2 a month may not seem like much, I suspect that many British households will take a degree of convincing that they should face a 10 per cent increase in their broadband bills to support a British journalism industry which still has something of an image problem following the hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry. 

That said, Leigh is right that something needs to be done and I suspect his piece is more about fostering a debate than anything else. Print circulations are plunging and while more readers are being found online, most titles are still miles away from finding an online model that pays anything like as much as the old print one did.

Without the work that national and regional newspaper titles do we would be left with a view of the world dominated by PR and advertising with some blogger propagandising thrown in for good measure.

So here's an alternative proposal: take on Google.

Currently UK publishers take a fairly relaxed view to the actions of the monopolistic US search engine giant because they love all the extra readers Google brings them.

But with Google UK ad revenues set to top £3bn this year the newspaper industry owners are increasingly looking like householders who, having been woken in the night by burglars, rush downstairs to make them a cup of tea before helping them into their van with the flatscreen TV and the silverware.

How well would Google do without all the free editorial content which it is indexing I wonder?

As the NLA versus Meltwater copyright case shows, UK publishers only have to say the word and they can stop Google reproducing their stuff. It’s a clear a breach of copyright if they want to stop it, a line of code inserted at the top of each website asking the Googlebots to keep out will suffice.

My alternative idea is for the Newspaper Publishers Association, the Newspaper Society, the PPA and the commercial broadcasters to get together and create their own news search engine. The accompanying search advertising could then be split between their members.

I suspect that professional publishers’ share of Google’s £3bn in UK advertising income would be more than the £500m brought in by the Leigh tax.

This article originally appeared in Press Gazette.

Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.