An article from The Guardian's David Leigh has made the case for forcing the public to subsidise the newspaper industry through a tax on broadband. You could be forgiven for thinking this modest proposal is a satire on media intransigence and a sense of entitlement but it seems the author may be serious. At the top of the article we are told:
"Proceeds could be distributed...to protect great journalism..."
It is unclear how David Leigh would ensure it only went towards "great journalism" but that's far from the only problem with this plan:
"A small levy on UK broadband providers – no more than £2 a month on each subscriber's bill – could be distributed to news providers... This would solve the financial problems of quality newspapers, whose readers are not disappearing, but simply migrating online."
Surely that is the content providers' dilemma. How is it anybody else's problem? Newspapers have about as much right to stick £2 on our broadband bill as HMV does to ask for a £2 cut from our electricity bill because the iPods and laptops we're charging have taken a chunk out of their business.
This initiative is never going to see the light of day but as such it is all the more surprising The Guardian ran the article. It makes them look like they have run out of all but the most absurd ideas for making money in the face of very real challenges.
Firstly, it's impossible to believe the ISP industry would ever sign up for this. There are lots of reasons why not, from competition issues related to Rupert Murdoch's ownership of newspapers and a major broadband ISP to damaging the marketability of 'free' or very low-cost broadband offers. But the main reason would surely be the precedent it would set. This is a group of businesses which try very hard not to set precedents. If ISPs were to entertain this notion it would open them up to calls from any business who feels the web has made their life tougher: from publishers to pornographers and record producers to film stars.
In fact, movie studios and records labels might expect to jump the queue if ISPs started arranging compensation, because compared to illegal file sharing, news stories being read entirely legimately on the websites they are published on doesn't seem much of an injustice.
The public may also not take kindly to this initiative. Giving £2 per month to subsidise the business interests of Rupert Murdoch, Viscount Rothermere, Richard Desmond and the Barclay brothers is not going to be everybody's idea of fun. And is David Leigh really going to tell the people of Liverpool that after 23 years of boycotting The Sun, they're now required to give a few quid a year to Rupert Murdoch if they want to access their email?
What about those who don't want to read newspapers online? Or those who say they like to remain in control of which newspapers they help fund. That doesn't seem unreasonable.
Importantly, this would also be a blow to digital inclusion. While campaigners work hard to get affordable internet access for all, the media arguing in favour of raising the barrier to entry by £24 per year seems very poorly timed.
Then there are the hundreds of other media outlets who would rightly want to be a part of this scheme. Leigh suggests membership would initially be limited to newspapers but concedes there may be some leeway in the future to reflect the changes which have taken place in the media over the past two decades:
"Other original news providers could subsequently apply to the independent levy board for admission to the scheme, case-by-case. But there would have to be a reasonable size threshold for admission, perhaps set at 100,000 monthly users."
That threshold allows for quite a few popular websites. And all of a sudden £2 per month isn't going to stretch very far. Then what, increase it to £5?
If the problem at present lies with the business model and running costs of newspapers then shovelling more money into the furnace isn't going to fix that. But it does explain why they'd rather it was somebody else's money and somebody else's problem.
There are some who support this notion. Roy Greenslade (also of The Guardian) wrote:
"It's an ingenious thought and it should be given serious consideration. Could this be the magic bullet we've been seeking? I certainly think so..."
A magic bullet? It sounds more like the idea which came after checking down the back of the sofa for coins. Back to the drawing board.