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21 October 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:11am

Funding the French fourth estate

The French government is at the heart of a bold policy . . . to encourage media plurality across the

By Rob Higson

As the row rumbles on over whether or not Vince Cable, Business Secretary, will intervene on grounds of media plurality into Rupert Murdoch‘s attempted acquisition of the remaining BSkyB shares, the Élysée is at the heart of a pioneering policy: to encourage media plurality across France.

The French ministry for culture and communication, in an attempt to encourage newspaper-reading among its citizens, will be giving away a further 220,000 free newspaper subscriptions to people between the ages of 18 and 24.

Une bonne idée, in this author’s view.

Under the Mon Journal Offert (My Complimentary Newspaper) scheme, which started in October 2009, 59 different publications were given out to the public. Subscribers receive a copy per week of their chosen title.

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Sacrebleu!” you may quip. Why should the state in effect subsidise what is more often than not a leisure pursuit, not a front-line public service?

Well, the French clearly think it is important that struggling newspapers not just be left to capitulate, or be swallowed up by homogeneous conglomerate behemoths.

It is also a recognition of the role that newspapers have to play in a democratic society. Getting the much-maligned internet generation into the habit of actually reading newspapers will – one hopes – benefit all of us.

We need to be bolder on this side of the Channel. Overall sales of quality titles are down 12.3 per cent year on year; the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Financial Times and the Independent are all registering a general decline in readership. Papers in Ireland are having their own troubles, too.

Incentivising print subscriptions is also important, as there are few economic models for online journalism which provide enough revenue to fund investigative journalism, which is mainly print-based.

The move in France seems to be part of a wider programme, coming only a week after the government launched a scheme to subsidise legal music downloads for 15-to-25-year-olds.

Under this programme, the taxpayer contributes €25 per user per year to every “Carte Musique” cardholder, which entitles the user to €50 worth of downloads. The cardholder pays for the other half of the cost of the card. The aim is to “preserve pluralism and cultural diversity”.

Jeremy Hunt MP, Culture Secretary, said recently that “the way our media operates – indeed its very existence as a voice wholly independent of government – is totally fundamental to our existence as a free society”.

Maybe the Department for Culture, Media and Sport could learn a thing or two from our nearby neighbours.

You can follow Rob Higson on Twitter.