A levy on our broadband to support traditional journalism? Be very careful what you wish for!

The Guardian is looking for ingenious ways to support its journalism, in a world where “freeconomics” are driving traditional publishers absolutely spare.  And I can fully understand and appreciate the quandary – even as I do not entirely agree with the tools this newspaper has used.

The latest suggestion to come out of the Guardian‘s marketing department was something I suggested years ago on my now dormant publishing blog, Zebra Red.  You can find two of the pieces in question here and here.  In essence, we could argue that the content producers have lost out to the distributors – those who make the money these days, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), sell access to generally free content which newspapers, writers, film-makers and musicians various are finding it incredibly difficult to live off.

The solution then?  Cream off some of the money which the ISPs currently keep for their lonesomes – and redistribute it through some ingeniously automated system in terms, presumably, of usage and page impressions.

This is Mr Greenslade blogging on the suggestion this morning:

Has David Leigh cracked it? We have been puzzling for years about how to subsidise journalism once it makes the final transition from print to net (see here and here and here). One obvious model is the funding of the BBC through its licence fee.

Objectors to such an idea – including current commercial proprietors – have argued, unsurprisingly, on press freedom lines. Any connection to the state is to be avoided.

But Leigh, The Guardian’s investigations executive editor, has come up with a very clever quasi alternative: charge a levy of, say, £2 a month on the bills of subscribers to UK broadband providers. Then distribute the money to news providers in proportion to their UK online readership.

You can see his reasoning and consider his sums in his article today – in print, page 32, or online here.

Now I can fully appreciate that content producers which add considerable value to society – whether on the right or the left of the political spectrum – may feel rather abused by the cut latterday distributors are taking from the equation.  In many cases, I can imagine it’s not even the forty percent of traditional book publishing but, rather, closer to a destructive hundred percent of all incomes generated.

So I’m sympathetic to the suggestion, especially as I am myself struggling to make a professional living out of my writing.  But I would ask four questions of those who would jump on the bandwagon – just in case they’re able to think twice before doing so:

  1. If the principle of levies on what are essentially 21st century utilities is to spread to other areas, who’s to say Jeremy Hunt won’t one day argue we need to bill our electricity users to keep the recently privatised NHS lights burning?  This levy, after all, proposes to charge a public like myself in order to support private industries which may very well choose not to publish or disseminate my political views in the least.  Why, under any constitutional arrangement, should I be obliged to pay for opinions and news-gathering positions I do not want to see spread around, when I use something like the Internet: as ubiquitous and essential a utility for the functioning of a 21st century state as water, gas and other basic services before it?
  2. If we do end up having to pay a levy on our broadband, and this does help to landgrab more of our evermore limited discretional spending for private journalism (whether we care to read papers or not), and – in the end – this succeeds in rebuilding a battered industry so that traditional newspaper journalism enters a brave new online world with its head held finally and remarkably high (on, it has to be said, the backs of the workers), who is to guarantee that they won’t recreate themselves as wasteful, expansionary and world-dominating media empires?  For if working people’s cash is going to be recycled into corporate pockets without democratic oversight, I really don’t see the difference here between the Guardian‘s suggestion for publishing – and what Lansley first, and Hunt now, have been doing over at the NHS.
  3. Penultimately, why does the Guardian suggest an extra levy on top of existing broadband prices?  Why doesn’t it fight bravely – Robin-Hoodedly even – to extricate some of the cash already swilling around ISPs as the grand evil distributors of our time?  Is it that the paper and its executives have calculated it’s safer to antagonise its readers for a bit than fight the technology corporations tooth and nail for a piece of the existing action?
  4. Finally, if we do end up having to pay a levy on our broadband access so that private industries can continue to push the sometimes marvellous, occasionally twisted, content they produce, wouldn’t in some subtle and inconvenient way the content thus produced begin to belong to us?  That is to say, to be reused and appropriated at will perhaps?  Now who’d really like to provoke – and then sort out – a copyright mess like that?

3 comments for “A levy on our broadband to support traditional journalism? Be very careful what you wish for!

  1. September 25, 2012 at 10:43 am

    Also, since when does being an eyeball ISP have spectacular profit margins? I wouldn’t be surprised if almost any media business that is profitable has far more margin than a typical UK DSL operator, a business model which is subject to savage price competition and a cost-base driven by BT’s monopoly charges multiplied by 25-40% annual traffic growth.

    Anyway, there is a far better idea than this, Dean Baker’s proposal for an Artistic Freedom Voucher – basically roll up all the various taxbreaks, copyright privileges, and grant-making programs into an annual lump sum, and let every citizen pick which creator they want to support. Anyone who opts into the AFV undertakes to release whatever they create under a Creative Commons licence, and of course they could opt back out and into copyright at such time as they see fit.

    • mil
      September 25, 2012 at 11:14 am

      Maybe you’re right – maybe I’m wrong to also demonise all ISPs equally.

      I did myself stumble across the idea you mention (eight years after your link) in a piece I published after subscribing in 2011 to the Guardian’s Kindle version.


      A package you can use to subscribe to many publications at once is I think something which is being contemplated by distributors such as Amazon. Of course, with their idea of a levy which is divided up directly, I’m inclined to believe the Guardian and content generators are looking to remove Amazon et al from the equation.

      But I may be looking too deeply here and seeing shadows where there aren’t any.

      Thanks for your comment, anyhow – and the link, and the reminder that not all ISPs were born equal …

  2. mil
    September 25, 2012 at 11:23 am

    I’ve just tweeted both your link and mine in this status:


    Many thanks again – I’ll be reading the paper now.

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