Writing on the Guardian’s website, and perhaps in the paper too, although I’m not wholly sure they still print one (subs, please check), their investigations editor David Leigh has made a bold suggestion for the future of the press. He’s been around, Leigh, and is as dogged a hack as you could hope to find on a newspaper, or whatever, which only prints tits on the arts pages. He’s a bit wobbly on the online side of things, granted (he accidentally gave the entire world access to the full set of unredacted Wikileaks cables by blithely sticking the password in a book), but that’s probably just a function of age. And, like I said, he’s had an idea.
Leigh’s idea is that Britain’s newspapers, including his own, could be funded by sticking a £2 levy on every broadband subscription in the country. And actually, this is not the daftest idea I’ve ever heard for the future of newspapers. On reflection, I think it probably comes second, after the Guardian’s current plan, which is to just throw everything up on the web for free and hope for the best. Now, having long ago given up on the idea of getting enough money out of people who actually want to pay for the Guardian, the idea seems to be to wring it out of people who don’t.
The best response to this plan I have yet read came from the Irish writer Julian Gough in the comments below, who pointed out that all sorts of other businesses have also struggled in the digital age, and might also benefit from a compulsory levy upon everybody with the power to access their wares. ‘Free pornography is INCREDIBLY popular,’ he noted. ‘At least a £15 a month levy there, surely, to go to the publishers of Razzle and Readers’ Wives.’
Roy Greenslade, the Guardian’s in-house media expert, called the suggestion (Leigh’s suggestion, not Gough’s suggestion) ‘an ingenious thought’ which ‘should be given serious consideration’. I suppose he may have simply been being polite. Hey, don’t get me wrong, if you work in newspapers, it’s a great idea. The thing is, most people don’t. It’s indicative, this, of that side to the Guardian which always makes me feel so very weary, regardless of the way that, as a product, it’s still one of the best around. It’s a mindset which does recognise that most people disagree with it but, rather than seeking to convince them, just fancies bossing them around.
There is, of course, a decent argument that news is a social good and ought to be funded by the nation at large, much as I’d expect it to get short shrift in these parts. The thing is, even if you like this idea, well, this already happens, via the enormous and expensive BBC. One has to wonder what David Leigh thinks the Guardian will do which the BBC won’t. Other than, perhaps, employ David Leigh.
Newspaper funding is one of those problems which was supposed to be solved by now, one way or another. The industry is the only one I can think of (not that I know much about many others) in which every competitor is playing by completely different rules. Every paper is a test dummy, having a different crash. The Guardian gives everything away, like I said, and plans to worry about it later. The Daily Mail protects the integrity of its print version by having a website that does something completely different. The online Daily Telegraph has a nice sideline selling clothes, holidays and financial services, and the Independent runs on pure philanthropy.
The Financial Times and the Times are both behind paywalls, but inherently different ones, given that the former is a niche product and the latter seeks universality. Both do relatively well out of their apps for iPads and suchlike (as, I suspect, does the paywalled Spectator) but for reasons I shan’t stray into for fear of losing you, they’re each delivered in markedly different ways. Plus, in my humble and worried opinion, paid apps are going to have a harder time in the middling future, when internet connectivity stops being something you sometimes don’t have.
If trainers worked like this, Adidas would have shops, Nike would bafflingly give them away free, Reebok would bundle them with groceries and New Balance would give you new shoes when they felt like it, but charge you a monthly fee. Nobody, is my point, has cracked it. And David Leigh, alas, certainly hasn’t. Still, it’s nice to see the Guardian finally worrying about this stuff like everybody else. As the alcoholics almost say, the first step towards solving a problem is recognising that you have one. Guys, welcome to the conversation.
Hackwise, by the way, I’ve a moral dilemma. Briefly, Andrew Mitchell does or doesn’t call policemen plebs, right? Then the policemen make an internal statement. Then this internal statement finds its way into the Sun. Then the Metropolitan Police announces that it will be holding an inquiry into the leak. That is where we are.
The hack in me reckons the source should be protected, and hopes he gets away with it. But the other hack in me recognises how much the Met as a whole had to gain from the leak, and thus wants to know how it happened. Truth or honour. Which side am I on?
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 29 September 2012