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Guardian's Robin Hood plan: Steal from everyone to give to us

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Comment The brother-in-law of the Guardian's editor - the paper's investigative reporter David Leigh - has floated an idea to save the newspaper industry.

Every broadband subscriber in the country would pay a tax of £2 a month, whether they wanted to or not, with the money shared amongst news organisations according to how many UK online readers they had.

If journalism professor Roy Greenslade (who blogs for the Graun) is to be believed, the idea came to Leigh in a Eureka moment, like Archimedes jumping out of the bath. Leigh reckons the Guardian would receive a £100m a year windfall from the new tax. This would be a lifeline given that the paper lost £54m last year - or £150,000 a day.

"We have been puzzling for years about how to subsidise journalism once it makes the final transition from print to net," writes the Professor.

"Of course there are problems to overcome," he concedes, "such as persuading the various service providers - BT, Virgin, Sky, TalkTalk et al - to become 'tax collectors' for news outfits." And he admits that it may be a hard sell.

"I realise that there will be strong objections to handing out funds to failing media companies," adds the prof. "How will they be made accountable for what they do with the money?"

There are many other objections - for this is not a new idea, but one as old as the web itself. A levy removes a publisher's ability to set the price for their goods. It creates a tedious new bureaucracy of news 'inspectors'. And most worryingly, it changes the incentives so publishers' primary concern is buttering up the bureaucrats and politicians in charge of the scheme.

But essentially, the main objections concern fairness and moral hazard. There is no reason successful businesses should subsidise incompetent ones. And while there's nothing fairer than handing over money for something you value, directly to the producer, there's nothing more iniquitous than paying for someone else's luxury item.

Of course Leigh doesn't quite see it like that. As far as he's concerned, his work has a higher moral purpose - so any taxation to keep him in work can be justified.

Charging for access means this beautiful creature

will DIE HORRIBLY

The problems faced by the Guardian are not unique to the paper - digital income from web advertising is far smaller than print income used to be. But other papers are succeeding in meeting the challenge without subsidies. The New York Times is looking a lot healthier since it introduced a "semi porous" paywall which now boasts over half a million paying subscribers. This meets the shortfall caused by the loss in print revenue, as the Economist noted last week.

The Guardian's real problem is specific: it's self-inflicted and ideological.

Loyal readers cherish the "world's leading liberal voice" and want to give it money for its website, but the management refuses to accept their filthy lucre. Executives argue that the free, open meadows of the world wide web would be defiled by money changing hands - how could the paper ever look a Unicorn in the eye again?

(We paraphrase. Slightly.)

Leigh's plan would see the newspaper's executives valuing the casual, drive-by reader (after all it would be numbers of unique users that would bring in the cash) far more than the loyal reader, and refusing to discriminate against the former in favour of the latter. The casual grazer doesn't really care if the Guardian disappears, but the loyal reader does.

At the moment the Guardian relies increasingly on the profitable assets of the trading group (Scott Trust Ltd). Perhaps ironically, this means that Guardian readers' daily treat is supported in large part by the second-hand motor trade, as Auto Trader is one of the group's main money spinners.

But this can't go on forever.

The Leigh Tax certainly isn't welcomed by Guardian readers - who realise they would be paying for the hated Sun and Daily Mail titles as much as their beloved Graun. And while they may not have Auto Trader subscriptions, they do have broadband. Commenters savage the proposal:

Don't levy those of us that don't read a daily newspaper, just because you can't figure out how to do business in the 21st century.

...

It's a thoroughly stupid idea, subsidising commercial enterprises whose business model is failing via a tax on commercial enterprises whose business model is successful. It does nothing fundamentally to solve the problems the world of journalism is facing, and it would only encourage laziness on the part of the businesses being subsidised.

...

The celeb-driven right hand column of shame on Mail Online? The horse racing results? North London dinner party chatter? Media blogs?

More constructively than Mr Leigh, however, Twitter wit @celestialweasal suggests a Live Aid-style fundraising single could help the paper: a "Graun Aid", if you will.

It's a splendid idea - but it needs lyrics. Please submit your charity ditty to us, ensuring that it a) mentions unicorns and b) must rhyme Toynbee with Subsidee.

Reacquaint yourself with the original lyrics, and click here to mail in your version.

Over to you. But hurry. Don't let the Unicorn die. ®

Bootnote

The Register management would like to add that we don't have nearly such a jaundiced view of Mr Leigh's plan as Andrew does. Mr Leigh calculates that titles such as the Scotsman would receive £8m annually under his plan. We have roughly triple the Scotsman's online readership, though probably more of our readers are overseas ... similarly the Indy are in line for £40m and we have about half their readership. The Reg, then, will surely be in line for a buckshee £20m-odd every year under Mr Leigh's plan (strangely he doesn't mention us, it's almost as though some kind of print snobbery were still at work).

Updated to Add

An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that pension funds or other ordinary investors hold shares in the Scott Trust Ltd, which controls the Guardian Media Group. In fact all shares in the Scott Trust Ltd, conferring control over GMG, were assigned to the trustees of the now dissolved Scott Trust. Provided the trustees concur, GMG management can do anything they like with their titles.

Many thanks to new commentard David Leigh for pointing this out. Mr Leigh is not the first Guardian scribe to contribute to the Register website.

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