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

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”