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Without newspapers, the people’s voices, we will all fall silent

Jeremy Corbyn’s proposals for a shake-up of the media – large and small – go far beyond everyday politics, argues Douglas Beattie

07 September, 2018 — By Douglas Beattie

Labour councillor Douglas Beattie

IT’S a rich irony that the politician most assailed by the press over the summer is the one who has a real vision of the industry’s future.

Jeremy Corbyn recently told the Edinburgh International Television Festival an eternal truth – that paying our fair share is the basis of a society for the many.

That point usually centres on the benefit to the NHS, social care, housing, employment and so forth of fair taxation.

Corbyn, in his remarks, was extending the clear thinking of the Labour manifesto of 2017 into another important policy realm.

The media, large and small, online, broadcast and, thankfully still in print, affects our lives whether we like it or not. Corbyn, more than most, understands this.

The Labour leader has called for “bold, radical thinking on the future of our media”, warning that control is currently concentrated in the hands of a small number of “tech giants and unaccountable billionaires”.

Many of the headlines around his speech focused on the idea of using the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google to future-fund the BBC.

Having been a BBC journalist for more than a decade before coming into politics I understand how morale suffers from threats surrounding the future of the licence fee and charter.

However, let’s not forget the corporation is funded to the tune of £3.8billion per year. And there’s the rub.

While we need the BBC and other broadcasters to function properly, the real cliff edge is faced by local newspapers.

Many are struggling to survive, others have gone to the wall having seen advertising move online and with it the evaporation of a sizeable chunk of regular income.

Corbyn used the platform of the Alternative MacTaggart Lecture to make the case for a boost in local, investigative and public interest journalism. This he sees happening through co-operative models or the granting of charitable status.

Doing so would necessitate a board of trustees, but having members of the public overseeing public interest journalism (without any editorial involvement) would be no bad thing.

He views a secure future for public interest media coming from “tapping up digital monopolies”, or a windfall tax to create a special media fund.

Some will bleat that this amounts to state interference; in reality these claims will come from vested interests and ideological opponents.

The truth is Corbyn’s proposals go far beyond everyday politics.

They would help cement the future of local journalism, the purpose of which is to reflect the rich life of our communities while holding public and private bodies to account.

It’s thought nearly 60 per cent of the country now has no daily or regional newspaper. The National Union of Journalists has warned that the industry is in “free-fall” with 200 local papers having closed since 2005.

Within tight budgets councils must look at what they can do to assist.

Highlighting upcoming council meetings by advertising them prominently in the local press would both increase revenue and encourage more of the general public to attend.

One other measure which would make a difference would see the Treasury exempt advertisers from paying VAT when purchasing
space.

I would not, though, encourage local newspapers to use pay walls to access articles on the internet as crucial community-based journalism has a widely available online footprint.

For instance, it may be better to offer a membership scheme where readers can make a small annual contribution to the running of a paper.

Whatever the long-term future, Jeremy Corbyn is right to worry about what he calls a “vital and proud profession.”

We are at a crossroads. Local newspapers are priceless.

They are the voice of the people and without them we all fall silent.

Douglas Beattie is a Labour councillor in Camden.

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