In My Opinion: John Collins: Let’s levy to invigorate the Scottish media

OF the 194 comments that currently accompany the suggestion, most appear to be against.

I refer, of course, to the proposal – published last year in The Guardian – that “a small levy on UK broadband providers – no more than £2 a month on each subscriber’s bill – could be distributed to news providers in proportion to their UK online readership…[to] solve the financial problems of quality newspapers, whose readers are not disappearing, but simply migrating online”.

Well, I for one, like the idea. And not just derived from broadband use. And why? Not for the narrow purposes of preserving the print media, or even expanding digital infrastructure into remote areas, but to invigorate Scotland’s media talent pool and encourage both localness and risk-taking within it.

I propose that the TV Licence Fee and a broadband levy are managed by a public body.

Of course the vast bulk of the money would go to the State broadcaster, but the link between the public and the money would be improved. Currently, you get the feeling that some parts of the BBC regard the Licence Fee monies as their right. The remainder would form a fund for the aforementioned media ‘good causes’. In radio, in particular, then innovation in new formats, or productions that don’t fit the narrow remit of the State broadcaster and don’t appeal to the commercial broadcasters.

Similarly, the fund could be accessed by community radio groups and those in rural areas struggling to provide broadband to their own communities. In return, there would be tough rules on commercial activities and bodies which are run for profit should be expected to pay into the fund as they make a profit.

I’m thinking this would be along the same lines of the way Performing Right Society levy its fees, with a minimum amount or a percentage of turnover of stations in profit.

Now I expect – and hope – that the vast bulk of the money would stay with the nation’s public broadcaster. They produce the lion’s share of crafted content, leaving (at least in radio) their commercial competitors to go after mass audiences with simpler productions. If profitable, they’ll contribute to the fund.

But the community radio sector is beginning to uncover some excellent new talent. So many of their programmes are so much more than a bloke with a box of records and form a vital community resource.

Behind them is a tier of little online stations. These aren’t regulated and they’re often little more than vanity projects. But the best are worldwide operations with several hundred listeners and committed, talented programme makers. The ability to apply for funding for either special projects or to keep a service on air would free up the minds of the programme makers to continue to innovate and find new audiences.

The march towards ubiquitous internet access is changing the very definition of broadcasting.

Almost all of my listening is delivered by DAB or IP. Apart from the explosion of choice, the process has been simple as I’ve upgraded my kit. There won’t be analogue switch off for many years, but we want to have a creative economy where the ‘big fish’ help fund the minnows.

There’s another benefit. Surely, if everybody had access to this ‘media poll tax’, which could be renamed from the TV Licence Fee to to a ‘Fund for Public Broadcasting’, we would be calling it what it is.

And in a world where the funding is separate from the public service content producers, corporations like the BBC won’t be such a soft target as they are now.

John Collins lectures in radio broadcasting at Reid Kerr College in Paisley, following a 25-year career on both sides of the microphone at both the BBC and in commercial radio in Scotland. He still pops up on the radio at Clyde 2 on a Sunday morning. Pic: Michele Dillon.