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Tech giants should pay a “digital licence fee” to fund the BBC and reduce the cost of TV licences for poorer households, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said in a speech yesterday.
In an address about media regulation at the Alternative MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Corbyn explored the idea of introducing the fee for big technology companies and internet service providers (ISPs) to contribute to a fund for public interest journalism.
Part of the reason for Corbyn choosing the technology sector to fund the subsidy was that “digital monopolies” such as Netflix, Amazon, Google and Facebook “profit from every search, share and like we make” and should contribute towards generating good-quality journalism that is in the public interest, he said.
“The best journalism takes on the powerful, in the corporate world as well as government, and helps create an informed public,” said Corbyn. “This work costs money. We value it, but somehow that doesn’t translate into proper funding and legal support.”
The Labour leader said that if nothing is done to address the current problems in the media industry and ensure it is better adapted to deliver “free and democratic media” suitable for a digital world, then a “few tech giants and unaccountable billionaires will control huge swathes of our public space and discourse”.
One of the ultimate goals of his proposed changes was to make the BBC free from government influence and more representative of the UK as a whole, he said.
“In the digital age, we should consider whether a digital licence fee could be a fairer and more effective way to fund the BBC,” said Corbyn.
He suggested that some local journalism that is in the public interest should be given charitable status, creating an industry that serves the public better.
The BBC has been making changes in recent years to try to adapt to the way the digital generation consumes media, including moving its BBC Three channel online and developing different ways to view content.
Antony Walker, deputy CEO at TechUK, said it was in “everyone’s interest” to ensure independent journalism continues to grow, and that digital platforms are allowed to support open and well-informed public discussion.
“Digital technologies have democratised knowledge, information and public discourse, for example by driving billions of views to publishers’ websites every month for free, but tech has also given rise to new challenges,” said Walker.
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Since the increase in digital adoption, the way that people are consuming media is changing, sometimes leading to them being exposed to “fake news” or untrustworthy sources of information, he said.
But Walker pointed out that many digital firms are already working with media agencies to try to adapt to digital. For example, Google has worked with some publisher sites to deliver about ten billion visits a month for free.
The industry needs “better ideas than just another proposal to tax tech companies”, he said.
There are also concerns that by taxing tech firms and ISPs to contribute to a digital licence fee and public service media fund, investment in other technologies, such as broadband infrastructure, could be directed elsewhere.
A spokesperson for the Internet Services Providers’ Association said: “Today’s call by the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, to impose a levy on internet service providers to help fund a ‘digital licence fee’ runs the risk of undermining broadband investment and could lead to increased prices for all consumers.
“ISPA members are currently investing billions to help deliver the next-generation broadband infrastructure and services that are essential to the UK’s economy and society. A digital levy could divert resources away from this investment and slow down broadband roll-out.”
Increasingly, people are consuming content through social media platforms rather than just publishing houses, and there has been speculation that in the future, the government will be more involved in the regulation of social media platforms.