Aidan White

Leading politicians in Britain are calling for a windfall tax levy on tech giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon in order to help fund more public interest journalism. In doing so some observers believe that they may have opened the door to ways of solving a crisis not just for cash-strapped news media, but perhaps also for democracy itself.

Once cash-rich publishers have seen their profits slashed and their advertising plundered by Silicon Valley content distributors which have scooped up the lion’s share of digital advertising revenue, draining the news media industry of the cash needed to pay for their newsrooms.

As a result there has been serious erosion of one of the key objectives of independent journalism – to hold political and corporate power to account. Across Europe and North America media closures and cuts in routine reporting of councils, courts and neighbourhood business affairs has created a democratic deficit in regional and local communities. In Britain, media commentators and survivors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, in which 72 people were killed, have noted that the absence of local news coverage of tenants’ fears of a potential fire hazard may have contributed to the disaster.

At national level, even trusted and well-established brands of journalism struggle to pay their way and rigorously-researched investigative journalism is in short supply.

There are niche markets where reliable information still pays for itself – financial journalism, for instance – but many big hitters in journalism, for example, the Guardian and Le Monde or the Washington Post, find themselves increasingly reliant upon the goodwill and cash support of membership schemes, philanthropists, foundations and, for some news organisations, hand-outs from tech giants like Google and Facebook.

Over the past decade there has been a fruitless search for a new market model that will pay for journalism without external subsidy. Over the same period the information landscape has changed inexorably.

Social media bias, disinformation, so-called“fake news”, and an academic fascination with post-truth threats to liberal democracy distort the debate over democracy and the quality of public information.

Until now, few concrete and practical proposals have emerged that focus on the most obvious solution – to strengthen independent journalism and to support reliable, trusted news media.

The initiative of the opposition UK Labour Party, by its leader Jeremy Corbyn in a speech to broadcasters in Edinburgh last month, ignited a much needed debate. The wide-ranging speech included a call for editors to be elected by their staff and the BBC’s board to be elected by the public and has attracted criticism across the political and media spectrum.

For example, while challenging Corbyn on a number of his proposals the Guardian credits him with raising some “interesting and useful suggestions” and it is clear in its rejection of a special levy.

It says the Labour leader’s idea that “a windfall tax on the digital monopolies could “create a public interest media fund” is flawed. True, France and Belgium did so. Yet social media companies paid up because they feared an EU competition investigation. They were right to worry. Google has been hit with fines totalling £6bn in the past 18 months”.

But it is not just the Labour Party that advocates a more pro-active approach in terms of the tech giants. While not going so far as to call for a levy, the UK parliament’s cross-party Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee was scathing about the tech giants in its recent report :

“In evidence Facebook did not accept their responsibilities to identify or prevent illegal election campaign activity from overseas jurisdictions. In the context of outside interference in elections, this position is unsustainable and Facebook, and other platforms, must begin to take responsibility for the way in which their platforms are used. Tech companies are not passive platforms on which users input content; they reward what is most engaging, because engagement is part of their business model and their growth strategy. They have profited greatly by using this model. This manipulation of the sites by tech companies must be made more transparent…”

Corbyn reflected this anger. He takes aim at “tech giants and unaccountable billionaires” who he warns will soon control huge swathes of the public information space.

His main call was for reform of the way the BBC is paid for, but the broad strategy struck a bold note with his call for an independent fund to subsidise public service journalism, paid for by the tech companies.

He also raised the prospect, welcomed by the Guardian, of charitable status for organisations that pursue not-for-profit investigative journalism. Funds could be directed to local, community and investigative news co-ops that pledge to hold local institutions to account.

As always, there is a paucity of detail on how much money the big tech companies would be expected to pay or even which businesses would be forced to contribute to the levy although one plan may be to assess companies according to their share of the online media market.

However, this is an important and useful intervention which at last puts on the table some 21st Century solutions to democracy’s information crisis. But it’s only a start.

For some time the Ethical Journalism Network has been warning that the crisis of falling standards in journalism is linked to a changing information culture driven by the rise of unaccountable and irresponsible technology platforms.

This is not just a professional calamity, with lost jobs and skills and increasing polarisation and intolerance in the civil and public sphere, it is leading to a full-blown political crisis.

The decline of public interest journalism and access to independent media is everywhere accompanied by the growth of populism, narrow-minded government and intolerance of dissident voices. Independent journalism we have argued is not just a desirable outcome of media and information policy, it has to be a central objective.

And that requires finding urgent answers to the money questions. Who will pay, how will they pay and who will receive the cash?

Already independent foundations, billionaire industrialists and dozens of small and medium-sized private organisations contribute to investigative journalism networks and media support projects in many parts of the world. This is a welcome development and should continue.

Even groups like Facebook and Google who do not recognise their responsibility for the shredding of the fabric of public interest journalism often boast about their investment of millions in new journalistic projects. Google, for instance, has paid millions of Euros to publishers in France to strengthen their online operations. In the United States, a number of major trusted media brands have teamed up with Google and others to support The Trust Project, which aims to build support for public interest journalism.

But all of this is not enough to make up the shortfall in lost news media revenues over recent years and it highlights only how a piecemeal, under-funded strategy is no answer to the current cash crisis.

One way or another more money will have to be found. Journalism will still look to the audience to pay for the news directly despite the fact that people have grown up with an Internet culture where information is essentially free.

And there’s evidence to suggest that this is possible. Last year The Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press, published extensive research showing that contrary to the idea young people are turned off by pay walls, nearly 4 in 10 adults under 35 in the United States are already paying for online news services.

The research also found that slightly more than half of all US adults subscribe to news in some form—and roughly half of those to a newspaper. That’s a good sign, but no guarantee of a secure future for beleaguered newsrooms.

In the end, journalism will have to rely on combination therapy to survive. There will be a place for some if not all streams of support – traditional advertising; public subscription; charitable donations and philanthropic largesse; and, of course, access to new funds, as suggested by the Labour Party, created by targeted taxation and levies on tech platforms and even the mobile communications industry.

But getting support for such a strategy is not easy. It will need further cross-party consensus because the future of journalism in a democracy cannot be a single-party issue; it requires the support of the wider democratic community.

And when that difficult objective is achieved, another tricky issue arises: who will be entitled to get access to the money? And how will the dosh be distributed?

Finding the right answers will be crucial. Consumers, we know, are only willing to pay for their news when the journalism is honest, reliable and independent. For them the trust factor is key.

News media are increasingly aware that if they are going to survive they need to embrace the future, its technology and the consumer demand for accountability and transparency.

The EJN has begun to work on ways in which media can improve their performance. Our ethical media audits provide a route map towards good governance in the digital age and our promotion of core values and standards to combat hate-speech give a flavour of the editorial culture that must prevail if independent journalism is to get access to the new forms of funding.

We are also working with other European and global media organisations – the European Broadcasting Union, Agence France Press, the Global Editors Network and Reporters Without Borders — to develop the Journalism Trust Initiative, a ground-breaking project aiming to forge a new culture of transparency and values in media and journalism that will identify news organisations, large and small, that are committed to the culture and values of independent journalism.

But not everyone is convinced. Inside journalism, many still resist the notion of public money being used to pay for newsroom operations because it smacks of political interference.

They will only be convinced if politicians in Britain and elsewhere can find ways of helping to pay for journalism without creating fresh bureaucratic and politically-tainted structures that are an obstacle to building public confidence.

The major challenge for all will be to ensure, no matter how the money flows and where from, that it goes to where it is most needed and it is delivered without strings attached.

Aidan White founded the EJN in 2012 after he left the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) where he was General Secretary for 25 years. He stepped down as Director of the EJN in April 2018 and has been replaced by Chris Elliott, former Readers’ Editor of The Guardian. Aidan is continuing with the EJN as President, an honorary leadership role created by the EJN Board at its meeting in London on April 5th 2018.

Aidan worked as a journalist with newspapers in the United Kingdom, including the Birmingham Evening Mail, the Financial Times and The Guardian. He has written extensively on human rights, ethics and journalism issues and played a leading role in establishing the International News Safety Institute, the global campaign for news safety, as well as the creation of IFEX, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange, a global network of free expression campaigners.

This article was updated on 31 August 2018. 

Main image: Photo by James Yarema on Unsplash

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