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

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left