Friday, 9 November 2012

New Media

Most people in this country probably assume that newspapers have always been subject to a statutory licensing system, and would be horrified to be told that that was not the case. In a sense, they are right. It is called the parliamentary lobby. In broadcast terms, Sky and the BBC now balance each other rather well, and no one can receive the BBC News Channel who cannot also receive Sky News.

Some requirement would be no bad thing at all, that the papers granted lobby access should be balanced among themselves, even if not necessarily within themselves. Broadcasters having such access should be required to give regular airtime to all newspapers enjoying the same access. Set, of course, within the context of the restoration of the proper lobby system, although with MPs' staff members having the same rights of access throughout the Palace of Westminster. In fact, the signature of one seat-taking MP ought to grant any journalist lobby access. That, and nothing else. Who's in charge there? Who's in charge of the country?

The media are over-mighty subjects as surely as the banks are, and nothing better illustrates that fact than their bank-like hysteria at the suggestion that their vast and completely unaccountable power should be subject to so much as the tiniest check or balance. At the very least, there ought to be a fairness requirement (which I have rather hilariously been told on here already existed, when it looked as if I might have been well enough to stand for Parliament) for the two newspapers that only exist because they are considered so important that the rules have been bent double in order to keep them going.

For The Times and the Sunday Times are loss-making newspapers that exist only because the rules were bent double so that Rupert Murdoch could buy them in order, to his credit, to fund them out of his profitable interests. So they ought to be required to maintain balance. The publications granted parliamentary lobby access should be required to be balanced among themselves, even if not necessarily within themselves.

The television license fee should be made optional, with as many adults as wished to pay it at any given address free to do so, including those who did not own a television set but who greatly valued, for example, Radio Four. The Trustees would then be elected by and from among the license-payers. Candidates would have to be sufficiently independent to qualify in principle for the remuneration panels of their local authorities. Each license-payer would vote for one, with the top two elected. The electoral areas would be Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and each of the nine English regions. The Chairman would be appointed by the relevant Secretary of State, with the approval of the relevant Select Committee. And the term of office would be four years.

One would not need to be a member of the Trust (i.e., a license-payer) to listen to or watch the BBC, just as one does not need to be a member of the National Trust to visit its properties, or a member of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution to be rescued by its boats. That model could certainly be applied to everything from the Press Complaints Commission to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and arguably even to the Supreme Court, although in that case with only one candidate per region elected and with a vacancy arising only when a sitting member retired or died.

We need to ban any person or other interest from owning or controlling more than one national daily newspaper. To ban any person or other interest from owning or controlling more than one national weekly newspaper. To ban any person or other interest from owning or controlling more than one television station. To re-regionalise ITV under a combination of municipal and mutual ownership. And to apply that same model (but with central government replacing local government, subject to very strict parliamentary scrutiny) to Channel Four.

The above model for the election of the BBC Trustees should be extended to the new Independent National Directors of Sky News, who should come into being entirely regardless of the ownership structure of BSkyB. Each Sky subscriber, or other adult who was registered to vote at an address with a Sky subscription and who chose to participate, would vote for one candidate. The requisite number would be elected at the end.

Ideally, their Chairman, appointed by the Secretary of State with the approval of the Select Committee, would be Vince Cable or, even better, Tom Watson. In any event, and not least in view of cross-subsidy, they might usefully double up as the hitherto most ineffective Independent National Directors of The Times and the Sunday Times. Alternatively, and perhaps preferably, the subscribers to those newspapers would by the same means elect their Independent National Directors.

That would be a start, anyway.

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