Corbyn’s Media MacTaggart
Labour Leader gives his 'alternative' view
Jeremy Corbyn is not often given to long, thoughtful speeches. So his Alternative MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh today is worth examining.
The speech was trailed as a robust defence of independent and investigative journalism, but also contained a number of specific proposals. Many of these were not particularly new, for example organisations like the Voice of the Listener and Viewer have been calling for elected national and regional board members at the BBC for donkey’s years.
Equally, putting the BBC on a statutory footing is a debate nearly as old as the BBC itself. It has historically been resisted by the Corporation, which has never been very keen on being the subject of a Bill that could be amended by all sorts of sectional interests as it passes through Parliament.
But the big idea of taking some of the value currently extracted by the big and mainly overseas-owned, online digital corporations and channelling that into UK public service content like news and current affairs shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
The idea of a ‘digital tax’ is being pressed very hard across Europe and it’s not difficult to envisage some of that money being hypothecated to support underfunded public service content, including national and local investigative journalism.
If it gains widespread support, a Conservative Government might even get there before a Labour one does.
But if it does happen, there’s no reason to assume all the proceeds should go to the BBC. There are other, commercial broadcast services on television and radio that deliver a daily diet of quality news against rigorous standards of accuracy and impartiality. They too should be able to bid for the funding.
There have been ideas around like this before, but the prospect of taxing digital companies that arguably pay too little tax and themselves contribute to the funding pressures challenging the future of quality investigative journalism might be too appealing for politicians to resist.
On the other hand, in my view, Jeremy Corbyn is being optimistic about opening up the Freedom of Information system further. It sounds good and is the sort of thing that all Opposition parties say and all Governments find difficult to put into practice.
As for the proposal for a new British Digital Corporation – or BDC – it’s hard to see how distinct much of this would be from what is already available or in gestation from the BBC itself.
The iPlayer and the potential development of an on-demand subscription service for BBC and other UK public service content go a long way towards delivering a UK alternative to Netflix. Albeit this is on a smaller budget and scale, but it would require a digital levy of eye-watering proportions to really change that.
As for a publicly-owned social media platform to rival Twitter or Facebook, other countries like France have flirted with those ideas but with very limited success.
It’s hard to see the level of investment required and the speed of innovation being matched in a publicly-owned entity. And as we’ve seen with earlier social media platforms, they are very much creatures of fashion and can rise and fall once outpaced by a competitor with a better consumer proposition.
Nevertheless, it is good to see Labour thinking seriously about some of these things. As Jeremy Corbyn said, the ideas were put forward more to engender debate than as rigid manifesto pledges.
But what is clear is the determination to tackle what he characterises as the ‘stranglehold’ major global companies have on the UK media. Of course, many of those began life as UK companies and so some of the global industrial value – as well as the soft power – they now represent, should not be easily dismissed.
Nor should we ignore his reaffirmation of Labour’s determination to proceed with Leveson Two – an issue close to his heart and that of his culture spokesperson, Tom Watson.
What he is right to say is that the competitive environment in which our media industries operate today has radically transformed in the last decade.
Monetisation of quality journalism becomes ever more difficult and our creaking regulatory system has failed to keep pace with the new players who operate with few rules and significant financial advantages over traditional media.
It’s perhaps not surprising, given the fractious relationship between Jeremy Corbyn and his team and the media, that he should devote one of his most detailed public speeches in recent months to the subject.
Whatever your view on the prospect of a potential Labour government, this is a serious agenda and worth us paying attention to seriously.