Government-funded media.

Sounds scarily autocratic, right? But a comment in John Broome’s book on climate change made me wonder yesterday:

In moral matters, the proper working of democracy requires that people’s judgments should be well-informed and founded on proper deliberation. This is why democracy requires newspapers, campaigns, and debates as well as voting. It is one reason why decisions are delegated to representatives, rather than directly decided on the basis of people’s unconsidered preferences.

This looks true to me. Democracy does indeed need a public forum in which information can flow and open deliberation can increase the probability of good judgements being made. Elections would be pointless without this. But the key piece of infrastructure here (the pipes of democracy, if you will) are evidently supplied by journalists and the media. Ideas are presented on television, on blogs and in newspapers. What would we do without these middle-men?

That is why the current set-up in our actual world is in fact quite surprising. Democracy requires journalism, but journalism’s existence is not secure. The existence of Britain’s major news institutions is contingent on the continued willingness of charitable trusts or billionaire moguls to cross-subsidise within their companies and offset annual losses. It is easy to imagine a situation in which, left to the markets, Sky News, The Guardian, The Independent and The Times all die, not to mention the shrivelling weekly journals.

Why, then, is public funding not popular? We do after all ensure financial support for all the other ingredients essential to a flourishing political society. Few would want to leave the police and health services to the whims of private businesses.

One obvious reason for the historical reluctance was captured by Ian Hislop at Leveson. “If the state regulates the press, the press no longer regulates the state, and that’s a deeply unfortunate state of affairs.” Of course, regulation is distinct from funding, and it’s plausible that the BBC shows the two need not come hand in hand. But it’s inevitable that liberals who wish to act on the basis of scepticism about state power will in principle be opposed to funding on the grounds that it is likely to also lead to regulation and corruption.

But is this all there is to the general absence of support for state funding of the media? If we were confident we could safeguard against such dangers, would we happily embrace the possibility of financial security? It just seems strange to me to accept that democracy requires journalism, when journalism’s existence is so fragile and the media could easily collapse.

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One thought on “Government-funded media.

  1. 1) This is also an argument for the public funding of parties, so that adequately present their arguments to the electorate
    2) This argument adds to the notion that a diverse media is a public good, which should be subsidised since it’s value will be insufficiently captured by the market

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