Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK Labour party, has proposed a special tax on US tech giants and UK ISPs in order to fund public interest journalism.
The context in which he made the announcement at the Edinburgh TV Festival was a juxtaposition in the decline of the journalism industry with the rise of social media. Traditional media has lost a lot of revenue to Google and Facebook especially and there is growing suspicion of so much media power being held by so few companies.
Social media is coming under increased pressure to censor the material published on its platforms, but there is growing concern that such censorship may result in certain viewpoints effectively being outlawed on the sphere of public debate over the internet. Corbyn has previously indicated he would like to have more control over the media but struck a more conciliatory tone towards journalism in this speech, having apparently concluded big tech is the real bad guy..
“One solution to funding public interest media could be by tapping up the digital monopolies that profit from every search, share and like we make,” he said in a speech entitled ‘We can fix our failing media by setting journalists and citizens free to hold power to account’. “Google and news publishers in France and Belgium were able to agree a settlement. If we can’t do something similar here, but on a more ambitious scale, we’ll need to look at the option of a windfall tax on the digital monopolies to create a public interest media fund.”
It’s easy to view a lot of this, coming from a card-carrying socialist, as a thinly disguised tax grab, but there does seem to be evidence of deeper thought too. It comes as a pleasant surprise to see Corbyn call for less government influence over the media, especially since his party has consistently called for just the opposite.
“Currently, ministers can veto FOI releases,” said Corbyn. “On two occasions, this veto has been used to block information about the UK’s decision to pursue military action against Iraq. That can’t be right. We will look at ending the ministerial veto to prevent the Information Commissioner being overruled.
“The best journalism takes on the powerful, in the corporate world as well as government, and helps create an informed public. This work costs money. We value it but somehow that doesn’t translate into proper funding and legal support. So, we should look at granting charitable status for some local, investigative and public interest journalism.
“If we want an independent BBC, we should consider setting it free by placing it on a permanent statutory footing, with a new independent body setting the licence fee. The licence fee itself is another potential area for modernisation. In the digital age, we should consider whether a digital licence fee could be a fairer and more effective way to fund the BBC.
“A digital licence fee, supplementing the existing licence fee, collected from tech giants and Internet Service Providers, who extract huge wealth from our shared digital space, could allow a democratized and more plural BBC to compete far more effectively with the private multinational digital giants like Netflix, Amazon, Google and Facebook.”
On reflection this speech seems to be both a cynical tax grab and a thoughtful look at the rapidly evolving public information environment at the same time. Something is definitely broken in the media industry, thanks mainly to the apparent market expectation that quality journalism should be free. Whether or not scapegoating and taxing a few big tech companies is any kind of solution to this problem, however, remains highly debatable.