Part II

Why should governments enter the murky waters of state-private media subvention and expose themselves to criticisms that these schemes imply? 

For instance, are not subsidies opening the door for manipulating journalists and inducing media bias in favour of the government? And what about the fundamental paradox of state media aid? 

Can a government help to structure, regulate, and financially support journalism and hence foot the bill for journalists to carry out their watchdog function, without undue government control or intervention in the editorial process? 

To put it differently: what government would hand out funds to a journalist working on a story about, say, government corruption?

Government support for media is not a new concept. During the third wave of democratization across Africa, especially in Francophone countries, particularly in Senegal state subvention to private media was enacted by parliament and heavily contested; the evil of government sponsorship of private media. 

Importing government subvention to private media in the Gambia imitating Senegal was categorically rejected in 2000 by the Gambia Press Union.

There are plenty of examples around  Europe and take Austria for example, where the government is financially supporting private media in the public interest – ideally wielding editorial influence and control of editorial decisions of criticizing the paymaster, particularly in developing democratic countries, government intervention to preserve and promote public value dimensions of news and quality journalism is structurally formative and assessed.

Right now, supporting the role of trustworthy, anti-partisan quality news journalism and news media in a democratic society – primarily taking the form of license-fee funding for public service broadcasting and direct grants and indirect support to privately printed media incumbents – seems ever more important.

However, state subvention is not limited to these formats. It can also include grants to non-commercial citizen radio and new journalistic online-only ventures, start-up media companies, and investigative journalism projects. 

Ideally, all these forms of state support allow journalism to provide a forum for public dialogue and enable social inclusion, political participation, and citizens’ responsible actions.

However, despite state subvention for private media being standard in Senegal during the administration of President Abdou Diouf, it is a contested matter. 

While Senegal, for example, provides grants for institutions training of journalists, France has shelved income tax allowances for journalists, a surprising move which could exacerbate the current lack of diversity of opinion in the country’s media.

How successful and productive state subvention for the private media could look is to outline what state subvention can do for independent journalism. 

Generally speaking, it can help to Safeguard jobs and create further employment. Raise journalists’ income and job satisfaction levels. Foster their skills in ethics, quality control, fact-checking, and audience relations for the public benefit. 

Compensate for their performance if the public would not want to buy into paywalled news. Improve the journalistic quality for the general public benefit, and encourage innovation in local news coverage that would otherwise not take place.

With the news industry under threat from falling advertising revenues and new revenue streams being hard to find, state aid for the media could address some of these issues.

The criticism of state support for journalism does not stop here. On a macro level, public subsidies to solve current pressures in the media are limited. They could even be counterproductive. 

Critics argue that subsidies would neither ban the specter of market failure nor relax issues of “agency capture,” a specific form of government failure. 

In this scenario, a benevolent government slips between the horns of a dilemma when asked for policy action to ensure both economic vitality and editorial diversity of the media.

Another point of criticism has not only been the political ramifications of state subsidies but their potential misappropriation. 

Critics argue that subsidies slip into publishers’ pockets with no apparent return to journalists and society. Ending up as backdoor subsidies with no apparent benefits, only artificially keeping alive those who are already economically weak, they do little to balance the structural inequalities of the market.

Which criteria must be satisfied for state subvention for independent journalism to be successful and productive? 

First, support needs to be fully refunded by supranational, national, federal, and local government budgets, levies, taxes, perhaps lottery proceeds, or “mandatory transfers” that oblige specific media to financially source others – such as public-service broadcasting to refund print news journalism.

Second, it should come as a natural feature that the development of state-supported journalism is not exclusively based on economic principles (economic freedom, property rights) and socio-cultural, political, and democratic frames to preserve the public interest.

Importantly, this includes that journalistic principles are protected and promoted (truth, accuracy, objectivity, etc.), and that the funding scheme complies with international standards regarding ethical journalism (i.e., codes of conduct, charters, and statements made by media and professional groups outlining the principles, values, and obligations), terms of payment (i.e., state-supported journalism should not “debase” or even replace fair payment and collective bargaining agreements or should have those as essential requirement respectively), and diversity principles (i.e., subsidies should go out to journalists across the whole political spectrum if they comply to democratic principles).

Moreover, third, state-supported journalism may use different tools such as tax breaks, fiscal advantages, financial grants, awards or prizes, or other types of preferential treatments or promotions for journalists. 

Support may be direct and general, or direct and selective such that grants would only go to specific genres of journalism (e.g., investigate or citizen journalism) or be targeted at improving the employment situation (e.g., grants for innovations and modernization, educational and training grants for journalists, awards, prizes.) 

Alternatively, support may be indirect in that journalists, for example, are exempted from payroll taxes. Financially supporting low-profit liability corporations or non-profit news collectives could also be an option. 

The tools used should meet the objectives and need to be regularly evaluated against meaningful performance indicators.

Ultimately, state aid for the media and journalism does not offer a “magic bullet” solution to resolving the industry and contemporary journalism crisis. 

While they point to the significance of a policy of guarantees and incentives to promote independence, quality, and innovation, proof of what effectively is to be gleaned from state aid is essential. Nevertheless, such evidence-informed reasoning is currently absent.

By Alagi Yorro Jallow.

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