Lessons for Leveson from Channel 4’s launch?

What with the Newsnight fiasco at the BBC, two media-related stories have largely dipped under the news radar these past couple of weeks. The first is the Leveson inquiry, due to release its findings in the next fortnight or so. The second was the anniversary of Channel 4’s launch, the broadcaster 30 years old last week.

So what does Channel 4 have to do with the Leveson inquiry? Well, the launch of Channel 4 could be highly instructive for thinking about how to fund the type of public interest investigative journalism lacking in the national press at present.

Launched on 2nd November 1982, Channel 4 was funded initially by ITV companies, who were then allowed to sell advertisements on the new channel. Channel 4 still retained a public service remit, and continues to do so to this day. In other words, parliament legislated that ITV – which enjoyed monopolistic status in terms of broadcast advertising at the time – help subsidise minority interest television in the public interest.

Academics, such as James Curran of Goldsmiths, are suggesting that a similar piece of legislation could help reverse the trend of ever decreasing funds being invested in investigative journalism. And this matters. After all, investigative journalism – holding those in power to account – is the primary argument in favour of press freedom.

The problem is that newspapers are nowhere near as profitable as they once were. Since the launch of Google AdWords in 2000, the ‘paid for search’ category has leeched ever increasing amounts of revenue from newspapers reliant on classified advertising to fund their operations. This has hit the national press hard but the regional press – often where the seeds of future national stories are uncovered – even harder.

Google’s advertising revenue surpassed ITV in 2008, and in 2010 stood at $28.2bn. In the UK ‘paid for search’ accounts for £6 of every £10 spent on online advertising, and Google holds 60% of the UK market. In other words, Google –a content parasite rather than producer – now operates a similar monopoly in terms of advertising subsidy that was enjoyed by ITV back in the early 1980s.

Curran proposes a form of top-slicing. 1% of Google’s UK AdWords revenue would be used to seed organisations solely focused on investigative journalism, such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ).

BIJ and others like it have done a remarkably good job of holding power to account on meagre budgets. Moreover, its reports investigate typically hard-to-penetrate industries such as finance and defence, rarely investigated in any depth by the national press. Rather like wiki-leaks, the BIJ uses tie-ups with national newspapers who buy the story fully-packaged once it is ready.

This type of investigative outsourcing makes a great deal of sense, particularly given the amount of data that is online. Often what investigative reporting now requires is the technical ability to mine data, or simply the patience to sift through PDFs and piece together details. The type of person attracted to this work often differs from the network-of-contacts-building journalist adept at getting off-the-record comments from high-profile figures.

So despite the attack currently being mounted on public service broadcasting in the wake of the Newsnight ‘scandal’, Leveson would do well to look closely at Curran and other’s proposals and advise in favour of legislation that evolves the journalistic model into one fit for the 21st Century. Channel 4’s funding model can serve as a useful lesson for ensuring those in power continue to be held to account.

Image via Edmond Wells

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