'Google tax could support original journalism'

A major independent inquiry looking at the future of public life has suggested that new taxes on Google and BSkyB could be used to subsidise rigorous journalism which holds those in power to account.

The Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in UK and Ireland was published today funded by the Carnegie Trust. It is a major piece of research looking at ways to strengthen and improve the UK “civic society”, which it defines as comprising the myriad clubs, organisations and bodies which full outside the state and commercial sectors.

Noting Newspaper Society claims that more than 100 local titles closed in 2009, the report states that economic pressures mean that “creative cannibalisation’is replacing original journalism in the newspaper industry.

It states: “For newspapers in particular, a decline in advertising revenues and reader figures since the 1970s has forced an increase in output, while at the same time cutting back on staff and diminishing conditions of employment. Job insecurity and commercial priorities place increasing limitations on journalists’ ability to function ethically.

“Needing to fill more space, including producing copy for both print and online versions, and to work at greater speed, on the one hand, while having improved access to stories and sources online, on the other, journalists are thrust into news production more akin to creative cannibalisation than original journalism.”

While the Conservatives have rejected any government funding for local news in particular, favouring a market-led solution, the Carnegie report draws a different conclusion.

It says: “Throughout this inquiry it has been clear that some government funding is necessary to protect the public service value of the media, though a mix of funding is critical in order to safeguard independence.”

It also suggests that those who make money from aggregating original journalism, such as the search engine giant Google, should be taxed to help fund under-pressure news organisations.

The report states: “Levies on the use of aggregated material have the potential to generate significant revenue to support the production of new public service and local content, involving civil society associations.

“If this form of funding were to be explored, changes in regulation would be needed to ensure that revenues go to original news producers and not just to those who present and disseminate material. Original news reporting needs to be supported so that it is financially viable; this could require charging those who are not authorised to use and distribute this material.”

Noting that tax relief brought in to help the UK film industry in 2005 had led to a boom in productions, the report states that this sort of strategy could also be used to help the news industry.

It also notes an Institute for Public Policy Research report stating that a one per cent levy on pay TV operators such as BSkyB and Virgin Media could bring in around £70m a year and that a similar fee imposed on the country’s five mobile operators could generate £208m a year. It also notes that the IPPR believes that making Google meet its full tax liability in Britain would bring in a further £100m.

The report concludes: “As the news media landscape rapidly changes, there is an urgent need to strengthen the role of civil society associations in helping to develop independent news media that survey the socio-political environment, hold governments and other officials to account, scrutinise the behaviour of powerful institutions, provide platforms for intelligible and illuminating advocacy, and offer the opportunity for diverse voices and agendas to deliberate meaningfully.

“This requires more philanthropic funding, and civil society associations, governments and commercial agencies to work together creatively the development of new models and initiatives.”

The key media findings of the Carnegie Trust Commission of Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society:

“Growing local and community news media. We want to see policy and financial commitments from local and national governments and support from philanthropic organisations to enhance the infrastructure for local and community media – including digital platforms and access to radio frequencies. Developing local and community news media also requires more partnerships between civil society and mainstream media.

“Protecting the free, open and democratic nature of the internet. We urge civil society to be vigilant and vocal regarding mergers and concentration among internet, social network and media groups. Competition and pluralism are even more important in these fields than others. We also want concerted action from governments to secure an open and free internet, and regular reviews of net neutrality210 to inform the public and determine international standards and priorities.

“Strengthening the transparency and accountability of news content production. Support needs to be given to civil society initiatives that monitor the media and maintain standards. This includes the development of standards, such as ‘kitemarks’, that would provide transparent information on how content is produced so that people can distinguish between accurate news and mis- or disinformation, which is particularly relevant for online and repackaged content.

“Enhancing the governance of the media. All news organisations in receipt of public funding should actively engage with the public and with civil society associations, through their governing bodies as well as through their daily practice.

“Protecting the BBC. We support the continuation of the licence fee as the best protection for the public nature, quality and critical freedom of the service provided by the BBC. Decline elsewhere is more reason to guarantee the survival in the UK of a recognised global centre of journalistic excellence and creative programming. However, we would urge the BBC to do more to collaborate with civil society in creating new public service news and other content, particularly at a local level.

“Redirecting revenue flows to promote diversity and integrity. We believe that now is a time for innovation in the funding of quality news content production. Some of the best developments in the media have come from new ways of directing resources into high-quality content and distribution. These include film levies in the UK; advertising levies in parts of Europe; and the redirection of advertising revenues to guarantee Channel 4 several decades of creativity. In recent years, policy-makers have shown little of that imagination. We want to see new funding models explored: for example, tax concessions, industry levies or the direction of proportions of advertising spend into news content creation by civil society associations, or into local multimedia websites.

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