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23 August 2018

Jeremy Corbyn’s proposals for media reform are actually pretty good

The Labour leader has some sensible ideas on the BBC, Freedom of Information, and funding local journalism.

In a speech in Edinburgh today, Jeremy Corbyn has set out his plans for the media – and in another sign that Corbyn is more business-as-usual as a Labour leader than some of the headlines he generates suggest, his team had already briefed the national newspapers on what he would say.

Contrary to the hyperbolic fears that Corbyn’s Britain would be a threat to press freedom, what’s actually in the proposals is generally to the good: including measures to improve the BBC’s independence, fund public interest journalism, and improve public accountability.

Plans to force the BBC to publish information on the social background of its staff might have taken the headlines – somewhat awkwardly, given the BBC already publishes that information – but the bulk of Corbyn’s proposals for the UK’s public broadcaster are good ones.

Corbyn suggests the BBC should be established on a permanent footing – ending the current system of “charter renewals” every ten years, which gives the government of the day significant sway over the corporation’s strategic direction.

He also proposes having some of the organisation’s board elected by staff and the public, ending the government’s ability to appoint governors; a healthy move given controversies over former governors and board members, such as Rona Fairhead – who chaired HSBC’s audit committee while the bank laundered money for Mexican drug cartels and aided illegal tax evasion through its Swiss branch.

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Fairhead was the last chair of the BBC Trust before its abolition last year, yet Theresa May refused to wave her in as chair of its successor, only to later reverse herself and appoint her as a minister at the Department for International Trade – hardly a good look to Corbyn fans already deeply sceptical of the BBC.

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Crucially, Corbyn speaks positively – if somewhat grudgingly – of the BBC, which is a very positive sign given the antipathy of some of his supporters to the UK’s public broadcaster, which remains by far the most trusted and watched news brand in the country.

It’s away from the BBC that Corbyn’s proposals are most promising and most radical, though – the Labour leader has been well-advised in suggesting measures that could help fund independent quality journalism without interfering too much in with the free media.

Corbyn’s Labour would boost Freedom of Information laws, ending the right of ministers to veto the release of information, and expanding FOI to cover companies that provide services on behalf of the government – a loophole that at present allows many public services to avoid scrutiny. Ideally – this is not mentioned in his proposals – this would be accompanied by stricter enforcement of the rules, which at present are often ignored, largely with impunity, but these suggestions represent a good expansion of the law.

Labour also proposes to allow charitable status for some public interest journalism not-for-profits – a rule which would greatly benefit organisations like The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in garnering financial support. It also plans expansion of existing schemes to boost local journalism, hopefully with reforms given some have been exploited for profit

The biggest, if vaguest, proposals centre around a levy on tech companies – which have taken a huge portion of online advertising revenue, heightening the crisis in paying for journalism – to create an “independent” fund to help pay for quality journalism.

This is a reasonable and realistic proposal – there are similar schemes in place and mooted in other European countries – but one that both tech and media companies will wish to see details on. It would be important that for-profit newsrooms had the ability to access the funds, and that organisations of different political biases would have a fair shot at it – but in principle, such a fund could be a helping hand to the media.

There are still lots of details to work out – not least who will be subject to a levy. It would seem unfair to restrict a tax to just the largest tech giants – Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others, but once it expands then what counts as a tech company? We might feel like Twitter and Snap should pay up, but what about the online grocer Ocado, or Monzo bank? And once Ocado’s paying, well – Tesco has a website too. Who pays and how much are key questions – but Corbyn is an opposition politician at present, and details are the worry of government.

Perhaps less convincing is Corbyn’s proposals for a “British Digital Corporation”, a proposal for a publicly funded and owned rival to the likes of Facebook. This isn’t nonsensical – the BBC has a solid track record with tech, with iPlayer leading the way in digital platforms, but could prove over-ambitious in practice: if someone is going to produce the Facebook-killer (and someone eventually will), they will likely seek to get rich off it themselves. Such funding may do better trying to invest in ethical tech, working as a public venture capital fund.

Overall, those looking to paint Corbyn as an enemy of the free press or of free speech will find little in his proposals to support their argument. So, too, will those looking to Corbyn to entirely reshape the media – these proposals certainly don’t do that.

Instead, they are a realistic and sensible look at some of the problems facing public interest journalism in the UK, and look to take a few steps to help tip the scales in its favour. Corbyn has been advised well here – it’s not the role of any government, Labour or Conservative, to “fix” the media, or to reshape it. These reforms don’t try to do that – and for that, too, he deserves credit.