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Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

The Media Fund offers ‘democratic’ alternative to billionaire press owners and BBC

By Freddy Mayhew

A co-operative whose members include left-wing news website Novara Media is hoping to create a new model to fund independent media organisations, in place of “billionaires and the licence fee”.

The Media Fund has been set up by four journalists who crowdsourced £10,000 to get it off the ground. It officially launches next month and will rely on donations and charitable grants to sustain it.

To join, publishers must not be reliant on corporate or government funding, support the unionisation of their workforce and abide by the National Union of Journalists code of conduct.

Co-founder Thomas Barlow, also the organisation’s strategic coordinator, told Press Gazette: “The media generally is in a bad state in terms of funding, so what we are trying to do is come up with a model that changes that situation.

“We are trying to take that job of fundraising off everyone’s plate so they can concentrate on what they are best at doing.”

The fund’s members are split in three: media partners (of which it has 21 so far), working members (9) and donors (35).

Each member gets a vote, although a governance board, made up of a third of each type of member, sets the direction of the organisation and has final say on who can join.

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The “democratic” model is a response to what Barlow describes as a “structural” problem with the established media, in particular its “profit-driven” funding models and the shared elite background of its journalists and political commentators.

Barlow said: “There’s nothing wrong with wealth, but profit-driven models and models that are based on ownership by extremely wealthy individuals have fatal flaws in them in regards to the quality of reporting that can be done.

“I can’t see where wealthy individuals who have a stake in a particular way of things happening in society can and should be able to own media outlets, because they are almost certainly going to need to be shining a light on individuals like themselves.”

The Brexit vote, the popularity of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the results of June’s snap general election took much of the traditional media by surprise.

Barlow said: “The political commentators who consistently have got everything wrong for four years still have their jobs and in fact are being paid more than ever.

“But no-one has asked why they are getting things wrong, no-one is saying maybe it’s because they come from a particular background.”

Barlow said he hoped the The Media Fund would provide “a way forward for all media” and could become “the method by which the media of the future is funded”.

In a video on its crowdfunding site the group calls on supporters to “finance the UK’s media revolution”.

“I think funding is a key part in the independence of content production or journalism,” said Barlow. “People will disagree in what amount that affects your journalism but I think everyone can admit that where the money comes from has some influence.”

He added: “Someone has to pay for the media, for what you see, read and listen to. If it isn’t you, it’s someone else and they don’t always have your interests at heart. We need to change our culture of assuming what we get is for free.”

The Media Fund’s members are defined as independent media organisations, but the likes of Novara Media have also been given another epithet: alternative news.

Together with The Canary, Skwawkbox and Evolve Politics they are also firmly on the left and readily admit it.

In his speech at the inaugural Steve Hewlett Memorial Lecture last month the BBC’s Nick Robinson said these “alternatives to what they call the MSM [mainstream media]” were partly to blame for the declining trust in the UK news media.

He said: “Their most shared and liked stories are attacks on the MSM and the BBC in particular. They share a certainty – fuelled by living in a social media bubble – that we reporters and presenters are at best craven, obeying some diktat from our bosses or the government, or at worst nakedly biased.”

Barlow, who himself has worked for independent news website Real Media, said of Robinson’s comments: “To have a prominent BBC journalist and presenter like Nick Robinson attack the independent media, I don’t think it’s acceptable and I think he owes us an apology.”

He told Press Gazette: “I think when people talk about alternative agendas that is really interesting choice of words. We say the independent media, not the alternative media.

“The establishment media doesn’t represent the mainstream opinion on a lot of the facts. I think we will find with the independent media that it represents the mainstream opinion on a lot of the facts.

“Media that comes by the people, from the people, will often the represent the people. If we are pushing any agenda it’s that the media should be protected by the people, for the people and it should be owned by the people.”

Barlow added that independent media was “playing a huge role in public debate” and “had a massive impact on the last election, or on reporting on Grenfell [fire disaster], or areas that aren’t being reported on elsewhere that people have a huge interest in”.

On claims the fund is supporting biased news organisations, Barlow is clear: “All media has bias. It’s for media organisations to admit it as they wish, but unbiased media doesn’t exist.”

He said: “I assume there will be claims of particular leanings or left-leaning bias. If the factual reporting is left-wing then so be it, but these accusations will come from incredibly partisan media organisations. They are all take particular positions [on topics], but some pretend more than others not to have those positions.”

Rejecting that idea that the fund is tied to the rise of Corbyn, Barlow said its media partners had been around for 45 years and that independent media itself had been around for “a very long time”.

“This organisation, the conception for it, came in 2014,” he said. “I started crowdfunding for it in 2016. We have launched it now. This has been a long process.

“We aren’t tied to any particular party or particular movement. If a particular movement or party profits from good independent journalism then fair play to them but what I’m about is supporting independent media.”

Asked if a right-wing independent news media website could join The Media Fund – such as the likes of Westmonster or Breitbart – Barlow said it was possible, provided they met the fund’s criteria.

“I think if a conservative media organisation could meet these criteria I would be extremely excited because I can’t see any,” he said.

“I think the conservative spectrum of opinion and intellectual scene is actually struggling at the moment it seems and it would be exciting to see them funded by organisations that aren’t propped up by billionaires.”

But he added: “I can’t say what the future decisions will be of a democratic organisation. I’m not going to be the gatekeeper of who is and isn’t in the fund.”

While he claims national newspapers have “vested interests” Barlow said he was “not in the business of criticising other journalists”.

He said: “I think there has been fantastic journalism done by all the existing establishment papers and it’s that that sets the example that people want to follow.”

On the BBC, Barlow said its model for funding journalism “could be fantastic”. “We all put into a pot for media – I think that’s a good idea,” but he added: “The fact is we have no control over the BBC, it isn’t a democratic organisation – it has an appointed board.”

He said: “I would like to see democratic processes. To see people have ownership of the way they get information and again we can see that struggle with Google and Facebook who have essentially created a Duopoly of where we get our information online.

“We need to talk on these challenges of structure and find solutions for them and I hope the media fund is one of these solutions.”

Picture: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke

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