Newspapers will be poisoned on hemlock of State subsidies

State interference with independence of newspapers would follow State money

“How could newspapers remain independent of government if they were to become hooked on the methadone of State cash?” Photograph: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

“How could newspapers remain independent of government if they were to become hooked on the methadone of State cash?” Photograph: Robert Alexander/Getty Images

 

Journalism matters. But so does its independence from government and other powerful forces that it is meant to hold to account. The road to hell for the newspaper industry will be paved with State subsidies. The sector needs to save itself.

Newsbrands, the representative body for Irish newspapers, has launched a campaign about the threats facing the industry. Newspapers everywhere are imperilled and Ireland is no different. It is a global problem, a side effect of the pivot into a digital age. The barons of Silicon Valley, and not those of Fleet Street, will rule discourse in this era.

Newsbrands correctly highlights the positive impact of newspaper journalism and makes sensible suggestions for government. These include reform of Ireland’s preposterous libel laws, which are a brake on free expression. Journalists who cover our wealthiest and most powerful business people understand this better than anybody: we could wallpaper our houses with their legal threats.

Newspaper journalism is at its brilliant best when untamed, ungovernable and contemptuous of all forms of authority

Newsbrands’ #journalismmatters campaign also calls for State investment in journalism training and a dedicated media minister. Then it gets down to business: a call for taxpayers’ money to save the industry. It wants VAT on printed newspapers reduced to zero and to 5 per cent for digital products. It also calls for the State to create a news publishers’ media fund for innovation and investment.

The latter suggestion chimes with a similar Fianna Fáil proposal this summer, when it suggested a €30 million State fund to prop up the sector. Both may well have sprung from a place of good intentions. But calling for public subsidies for newspapers – for that is what this is – is misguided.

Regardless of the best of intentions to the contrary, government money would slowly poison newspaper journalism. It would inevitably bring on a form of chronic toxicity, like drinking snakeroot tea with breakfast every morning. Newspapers could learn to live on taxpayers’ money. But they would be undead.

Newspaper journalism is at its brilliant best when untamed, ungovernable and contemptuous of all forms of authority. How could newspapers remain independent of government if they were to become hooked on the methadone of State cash?

It would start with a small, government-backed investment fund. A few years and one slippery slope later, it would end with complete over-reliance. We would have a population of eunuch publications, strangled by a culture of pulled punches and self-censorship, where angry State officials would feel entitled to intervene.

Newspapers and journalists might deny this would happen. But who would we be kidding? State interference would follow State money, just as night follows day, and angry phone calls from politicians would follow scoops that embarrassed them. Pretending otherwise is a fallacy.

Remember the Project Ireland 2040 national development plan advertorials scandal earlier this year? That is a harbinger of how this story ends.

Broadcasters are different. BBC, the world’s greatest publicly-funded news organisation, has its independence guaranteed by royal charter, and we all know the British never argue with their queen. RTÉ, too, produces some of the best investigative journalism in this State. But it is protected by a legal framework laid out in the broadcasting Acts.

Newspapers have none of this. We would be orphans in the storm, rattling tins instead of cages. It would get progressively worse.

This is not blind ideological faith in “the market” to solve all problems. Government intervention may well be required to help journalism. But it cannot involve handing over government money to newspapers. Independence matters, or there is no point to newspapers at all.

Newspapers’ most one-eyed critics on the political left accuse them of being already compromised: not by the State, but by the business sector due to the traditional reliance on advertising. But that argument never held water, or at least, not as a rule. Individual businesses don’t have a big enough hold over individual newspapers. There is only one government here, and it is huge.

Okay, genius, I can hear you whispering. What’s your big idea instead? I wish there was a silver bullet to save newspapers, assuming they can be saved at all, or even that they should be. But there are better solutions than the public purse.

Journalists are fond of aggrandising themselves as the guardians of democracy. But in reality, the first responsibility of a free press is to make a profit. That way, you get to live another day, free from interference and deaf to siren calls to take State money.

The Irish Times is profitable, due to the efforts of everybody from the very top to the bottom. Independent News and Media, the biggest newspaper publisher, is also still profitable. The Sunday Business Post has new owners, and presumably new investment. The British papers that enrich our media landscape are attached to huge organisations with money in the bank.

If newspapers get addicted State cash, how could they be expected to maintain enough independence to pressure the Government to do what needs to be done?

Newspapers aren’t dead yet. We still have time to build revenue streams that don’t flow from Merrion Street.

The greatest threat to newspapers’ profitability is the online hegemony of Facebook and Google, which suck up 90 per cent of digital advertising growth. If governments around the world are serious about strengthening newspapers, then there is no alternative: they will have to weaken the forces that are strangling them.

It won’t be a panacea, and it doesn’t absolve newspapers’ of their responsibility to build better business models. But to properly confront a problem, you must be honest about its true nature. Google and Facebook, and maybe Amazon too, are too powerful and must be broken up. Not for the good of newspapers. For the good of all.

Obviously, the Irish Government cannot do this itself. This is a supranational issue that will only be solved in Brussels, London and Washington.

But how can the Government even make the case when it is addicted to the financial hit of Silicon valley, which sees Dublin as its European condo?

And if newspapers get addicted State cash, how could they be expected to maintain enough independence to pressure the Government to do what needs to be done?

FOOTNOTES

Irish football team manager Martin O’Neill was among the attendance at the Liam Miller tribute match and the subsequent gala dinner at Cork City Hall. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Irish football team manager Martin O’Neill was among the attendance at the Liam Miller tribute match and the subsequent gala dinner at Cork City Hall. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

- Following the Liam Miller tribute match at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Tuesday, the nexus of business and sport moved to Cork City Hall that evening for the event’s gala dinner. Some of Ireland’s best-known sportspeople rubbed shoulders with titans of business.

Business figures were prominent on the tribute’s organising committee. Dermot Desmond helped out, along with Denis O’Brien and Maria Mulcahy, the Newstalk director and chief executive of the Iris O’Brien Foundation. BDO tax adviser to the sports industry Ciaran Medlar was also on the organising committee, which was chaired by Cork developer Michael O’Flynn.

Most of them were at the dinner later that evening. O’Flynn’s table included Manchester United legend Bryan Robson (Keano without the baggage) and Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil. Barry McPolin, the Garda chief superintendent for Cork, was also there to keep them on their best behaviour.

O’Brien sat with his friend and ally Leslie Buckley, the former chairman of Independent News & Media and a well-known son of Cork. I’m sure they had plenty to talk about. They were joined by various FAI officials, including its chief executive John Delaney and Martin O’Neill, the Irish football team manager whose wages used to be paid by O’Brien. I hope O’Neill bought him a drink back.

Krispy Kreme queues spell trouble

- To all those who queued for hours for the dawn opening on Wednesday of the new Krispy Kreme doughnut outlet in Blanchardstown in Dublin: are you well at all?

Consumerism is clearly back with a bang. First, people queued last December in the cold on Grafton Street for the opening of the Victoria’s Secret lingerie outlet. That was kind of understandable. But now they’re queuing for glazed baked goods too?

There must be trouble ahead.

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