So Guardian journo David Leigh has argued in favour of a £2 per month tax on broadband to help fund struggling newspapers. It’s an absolutely ridiculous idea – making some print journalists seem like a modern day version of the Luddites. It’s a desperate attempt of an industry to try and ignore/avoid the sands of time and keep their outmoded business model struggling along for a bit longer. It’s the equivalent of a tax on cars to help preserve horse-drawn carriages. It’s taxing one industry to prop up another. It’s surely a non-starter, and so far the only other advocate seems to be another Guardian journalist (and even that support outlines most of the criticisms of the plan without addressing many of them). Although I’m sure it’s not the case – the repeated support of this from the Guardian just makes it look like some sort of agreed line handed down from the Scott Trust.
The thing is good quality journalism is vital for our democracy. We wouldn’t know half as much about phone hacking (which has damaged the industry enormously) if it wasn’t for quality print journalism. The 24 hour news environment – including blogs like this one – survives and thrives off the back of quality newspaper and magazine reporting. There has to be a way to adequately monetise huge online audiences for newspapers. Unfortunately no-one has managed that (yet) – but the answer isn’t a broadband broadsheet tax. Newspapers won’t necessarily die as media organisations, but stamping the news on dead trees (which soon become out of date) will certainly become a thing of the past. I love newspapers, and journalism – and I actually quite like the majority of journalists I’ve met in my time (like politicians, they are all treated like the worst of their kind).
But the industry needs to change because the old business model is over, subsidy or no subsidy.
Yet the media aren’t the only ones struggling with an outdated model that will, at some point, collapse from under them, threatening to take the whole show tumbling down into the abyss. Politics is in exactly the same position. The “market share” of politics (i.e. how many people can be bothered to vote) has declined as sharply as anything in the print sector in the past few decades. And voting is both free, and matters immensely. Politics is at least as badly hobbled as the crumbling industry of print news.
Off the top of my head – here are three key ways in which the model we use for politics is outdated and needs to change:
a) Language: “Black Rod”, “Right Honourable Member” – where do you draw the line between grand traditions that should be protected and completely outdated language that excludes all but the most ardent of political nerds? And even this political nerd gets baffled by the intricacies of Erskine May. It’s not how people talk, and it contributes, in a small way, to the perception that politician aren’t real people at all. And while we’re on, not being able to call someone a liar – when they are lying – is as dishonest as the act of lying. Unparliamentary language my arse. Call a spade a spade and a lie and lie.
b) Campaigning: Knock on the door. Ask who they vote for. If it’s Labour they had just gauranteed themselves relentless Election Day pestering. If it’s not Labour they get a mark next to their name and we ignore them – sometimes for months, sometimes forever. It might work for winning elections on low turnouts (it does, I’ve done it), but what kind of way to treat people is this? And at its simplest level politics is about how people treat each other. The way we campaign alienates the public and is unappealing to many activists. Could a little more conversation produce a little more action, as Elvis didn’t say? It could certainly ensure the door gets slammed in fewer faces. And fewer people giving up on voting for good.
c) The Westminster bubble: If the business of politics largely takes place in one confined place, and most MPs live a big chunk of the year in London – is it any surprise our politics is so London-centric? And is this a case for even shorter parliamentary terms and MPs spending more time in their constituencies? Yes. Because parliamentary recess isn’t a holiday – at least for most Labour MPs.
So whilst it’s easy to see how the current model for print media is failing, it’s even clearer that the model for how we do politics in the country is failing even more. And that’s an industry that we can’t ever allow to fold completely and crash in on itself. But something radical needs to change – because we’re already peering over the edge, into the abyss…