There are two truths that not only governments but societies as a whole must recognize and act upon if political culture and accountability are to be reinforced through a properly funded independent print media system.
n the last decade, newspapers, which are not only traditionally private companies but have also voluntarily taken on important, vital and serious public service responsibilities, have lost half their revenues from customers and advertisers.
The first truth is that the spread of disinformation and the piracy of authentic and costly content through largely unregulated online media continue to outpace state and even international regulatory power.
The second is that many of the improvement actions advocated by the Future of Media Commission, while worthwhile, are complex and uncertain in both beginning and detail. The fire engines may arrive, but only to get a glimpse of scorched earth.
So we need to construct and agree on workable solutions that protect what is sometimes condescendingly referred to as “old” media. What can we do before the “inheritance” is used up, wasted, or stolen?
This is where central government – and the contribution to the policies of all parties inside and outside government – is crucial. If the short-term problem (although it’s somewhat ironic to call it “short-term” given it’s been growing for at least a decade now) cannot be alleviated, there is no need for a long-term solution. This is of course because the long-term “problem” will be gone, along with much of our commercial news media, which serves an invaluable public and private purpose.
There is therefore a demonstrable need for urgent support for these media, especially newspapers, whose printed editions are not only more accessible than many other public sources of information, but are also an integral part of public and private decision-making, social policy and historical research.
Newspapers have traditionally – and rightly – rejected any form of direct government financial support that is indirectly or psychologically dependent on support or a reluctance to criticize government policies. In the fairly distant past, government public advertising policies were not infrequently used as an indirect subsidization of certain media characterized by their support for a particular political trend. More recently, not without reason, public advertising has been focused on its effectiveness in conveying publicly material information.
But more is needed, and urgently so, if we are not to see how many newspapers – still an integral part of our information ecology – wither and die on the vine.
The policy area most suited to short-term policy changes is VAT. This is therefore the policy area that is almost certainly the best way to protect an industry facing a serious and growing threat from unregulated and international competition, much of which is under-regulated and carnivorous.
The abolition of VAT on newspapers would save the industry around 18 million euros annually. A number small enough given recent government spending related to the pandemic, but disproportionately important given the public’s information needs, the political health of our society and the role of an independent press in supporting and developing these vital assets.
And the task of deciding how much should be forgone by that government and how the resulting savings should be distributed would benefit from fair and civilized but urgent discussions involving not only government and publishers but other important interests as well involved.
I’ve spent six decades in journalism in one way or another and I look at every minute of that time with great affection, with a great sense of the commitment of all journalists and especially those who work for the newspapers, to the public good and to those who they produced and managed.
Like all forms of human communication, journalism is not perfect and never will be. But are we going to say at the end that we never knew how much we needed it – warts and stuff – until it was gone?
John Horgan is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at Dublin City University (DCU) and was Ireland’s first Ombudsman for the Press
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/abolishing-vat-on-newspapers-is-best-and-quickest-way-of-protecting-this-vital-industry-42010922.html Eliminating VAT on newspapers is the best and quickest way to protect this vital industry