8340743611_3d8f22e6e9_zAs a society, our substantial problems with the news media include these two. For one, large chunks of them have behaved irresponsibly and illegally with regard to phone hacking and other offences.

For another, they’re dying off, especially the broadsheets. The Scotsman and the Herald and their Sunday sister titles are now not even being treated as national titles anymore, at their own request.

The year-on-year figures are atrocious: by December last the Scotsman was down to just over 32,000, and almost twelve months ago the Sunday Herald was barely at 26,000 – not even half of one percent of Scots bought a copy. Less than 5% bought the Record. I won’t be forgiven if I don’t point out that the P&J is somewhat bucking the trend (and the i), but there’s not much comfort there.

The reasons for the decline are well understood, in broad terms, and the consequences of dwindling readership are bleaker than might be assumed. Dwindling numbers of titles will be even worse, should that start happening nationally. I made some arguments about the causes and the consequences back in 2009: #1, #2.

The London tabs in particular are facing the first of two further sticks: existing court cases. That reflects the fact that newspapers are already regulated, in many senses, or at least circumscribed by law. Nothing that happens today could have stopped hacking, for instance, which entailed existing criminal acts for which jail terms are in some cases being served. Nor, as far as I can see, would it have brought longer sentences for such acts. Bribery of public officials, like the plod we also see going down in small numbers: that’s obviously also already an offence by both parties and should be enforced properly.

The second stick was actually two rods aimed at a broader target than just the miscreants: the Leveson/McCluskey proposals. To no-one’s great surprise, the latter of those rods has just been dropped by the SNP as quickly as they picked it up, not that that will resolve the political problems they face over media regulation.

As for Leveson, it’s a secondary question whether the system is voluntary or compulsory, by royal charter or statutory underpinning. The question should be will it deliver on the public interest here?

And putting the public interest first might point us in a different direction. The public have a legitimate interest in a whole number of “services” provided by newspapers, including those which provide the reasons for readers choosing to buy an individual paper (including entertainment and the reinforcement of readers’ own prejudices). Some of those interests are essentially only enough to justify individual purchases, but some of the “services” are genuinely socially beneficial, notably investigations.

Bare facts are free and easy to find. Analysis is freely available too, and sometimes better than the papers. For all that Lesley Riddoch, Iain McWhirter, Euan McColm, Alan Cochrane etc are first class, whether or not you agree with them, plenty of newspaper comment falls below the level set by bloggers like Kate Higgins, Peat Worrier or (for a bit of Westminster insight) former Labour spad Damian McBride.

But investigative work by the media generally is largely still with the papers, much as the quantity and quality could be much improved. And the benefits of the work that does get done are felt whether or not you buy a copy. You may never have bought a Telegraph in your life, but I am grateful to them for the comprehensive way they shed light on the casual greed and corruption of the MPs’ expenses system. God knows what the overall effect of Rob Edwards’ work is, closer to home, but you can bet it includes a cleaner Scottish environment and officials more afraid to act in secrecy and attempt to deceive the public. Free speech is both right in principle and an essential part of civic society’s autoimmune system.

So let’s start with a carrot. It’s not impossible to devise a kind of support system for a responsible media that might help protect both journalists’ jobs and that public interest in their work. The Norwegians have one system of both direct support and tax breaks, designed to protect their cities’ second papers from competition (h/t @thesocialforest). The French have supports too, briefly set out here.

It wouldn’t be beyond the wit of our legislators to devise a system that might work, although the Norway system costs more than £100m per annum, which would be a hard sell even with any self-interested media support that might be forthcoming.

You could set a rate for sold copies of papers plus a rate for page views – both have to be relatively accurately audited already to meet the needs of advertisers, so policing that shouldn’t be too hard. Freesheets are harder, admittedly. You could also make it proportional to each newspaper’s original non-paid-for content. You could make the funds available only for specific purposes or with specific conditions – the aim is to see journalism kept afloat, not the owner’s yacht.

It’s a big carrot, and I’d combine it with a very different and more limited stick, again guided by the public interest. There is such an interest in the good behaviour of the media, and it extends beyond that which can be constrained by the courts. Notably, we should be able to expect accuracy. Where a court (or even a semi-Leveson arbitration setup) finds that a paper has made a clear factual error to someone’s detriment, they should be required to print (and display online) the correction on the same page. Same page online means linked to just as prominently as the original piece, and for the same duration, on the front page (if appropriate) or whichever section pages the original featured on.

Another carrot to retain and enhance is the legally distinct status journalists enjoy – for example, qualified privilege, as discussed here. There are probably additional protections of this sort that could be considered, given again the public interest in papers being able to “publish and be damned” – with the caveat above about factual accuracy.

These moves might be combined in various ways: commit to correcting factual errors in that way and get the subsidy, for example. However, there is another problem of under-regulation, too, one which is being studiously ignored. Media ownership remains concentrated in the hands of a narrow elite of rich conservative men, with the odd honourable exception, and the print media continues to be used to promote the interests of rich conservative men. Even in these days of dwindling circulation, this matters. Papers do continue to set the agenda, amplified in many cases by social media.

This has to end. This form of ownership may even contribute to declining circulation – although many people enjoy reading papers which continually argue against their readers’ economic and political interests, others do not. The opportunities for that same elite to bend the laws in their favour are greater, yet the nature of the ownership class militates against their journalistic employees investigating them or their editorial employees running those stories – just think how long Robert Maxwell got away with it. What’s more, it’s the newsroom front-line that’s doing time for hacking and corruption offences: why not make owners accountable for criminal acts at their titles, too?

And it’s still extremely hard for newcomers to get into the sector. We need a return to tougher quotas for media ownership. It’s a problem that’s interrelated with hacking, as this great piece by Justin Schlosberg sets out. That won’t necessarily do more than divide the papers amongst a wider set of rich conservative men, so, more radically, Dave Boyle’s ideas on cooperative media ownership probably deserve proper consideration (declaration: he’s a mate).

So, in short, here’s a different model of media regulation and support, driven by the public’s legitimate interest in papers’ operations: support by circulation, compulsory fair corrections, protection for journalists’ legitimate investigative and reporting activities, and moves to tackle the distorting problem of papers being treated as rich men’s playthings.

Much of this, especially on ownership, would be seriously popular too, at least until the editorial special pleading began. The status quo looks like managed decline, at best, and these ideas may seem absurd. Let me have others, if you think that, or tell me why you think the survival of the papers doesn’t matter, wrong-headed as I’m convinced that is.