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24 September 2012

Why David Leigh’s broadband tax plan is bonkers

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

By Dominic Ponsford

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.

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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.