The revelation of The Telegraph’s lack of coverage of HSBC’s illicit tax evasion business in Switzerland did not come as a surprise. The ownership of a national newspaper is attractive to multi-millionaires with assets to protect and other business interests to promote. Rupert Murdoch (Times, Sun) the Barclay Brothers (Telegraph), Lord Rothermere (Mail) and Richard Desmond (Express) don’t own their newspapers for philanthropic reasons or even for the profits they generate. They own them for the influence it gives – influence to protect their other commercial interests and to promote and project their political views. This projection isn’t even primarily at their readers. It is directed at the established political parties and the governments they form. This is clearly undemocratic. But what is to be done?
One solution would be to require every national newspaper to be owned by their readers on a one-member-one vote basis and to limit their dependency on commercial advertising. This is the model employed by the Morning Star and it works well. It has enabled the Morning Star to secure a readership well beyond that of card carrying members of the Communist Party. The Morning Star still faces a struggle for survival, largely as a consequence of being shunned by the other mass media, including the BBC. The model, nevertheless, has been shown to work and the resulting loyalty of its reads is far above that of any other national newspaper.
What of newspapers that don’t wish to re-structure as reader co-operatives or to limit their dependency on advertisers? Should they be shut down? Would that not be undemocratic?
In the internet age, the contribution made to democracy by large, privately owned newspapers is questionable. Shutting them down might well be justified in some situations – as it was, for example, in Cuba after the revolution, although the actual course of events there was more complex, having been triggered by an exodus of newspaper owners and editors to Miami and the election in their absence of new editors by newspaper workers. In less revolutionary times, the continued publication of newspapers not owned by readers could be tolerated if they were subject to a non-linear tax, not on the newspaper’s profits, which are often small or even negative, but on their annual revenue, circulation and advertising and losses. At least the benefits accruing to the owners would then be taxed and, if supplemented by a requirement that owners must themselves be resident and domiciled in the UK, at least some measure of fairness would be established. This idea is briefly discussed in the pamphlet From Each According to Their Means from the Economics Commission of the Communist Party that I mentioned last week, with a proposal for how the non-linear tax could be constructed dealt with in the supporting paper underpinning the pamphlet.