Credit: Colin Park via Geograph CC BY-SA 2.0

The Government’s shameless budget bribe to the media

On the face of it, abolishing the VAT on newspaper sales is worth precisely zero euros to the people who publish and sell those newspapers. On the face of it, the measure is in fact a cost-saving device for those who purchase papers and read them. A little help with the cost of living.

The problem is that there is not one person alive who is aware of the measure, announced this week in the budget, who expects newspapers to pass the saving on to their customers. The price will stay the same. The extra 9%, which once went to revenue, will – almost every observer expects – go directly to the newspapers and those who publish them.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the newspapers have not been especially keen to publish this. The measure itself has been reported – dutifully – but well down the list of things announced in the budget.

In the still-mesmerising 1980’s sitcom, “Yes Minister”, a favoured trick of Sir Humphrey and fellow civil servants was to inform their Minister of measures that they wanted to enact, but in a way that the Minister might, hopefully, not notice. “Give the Minister five boxes of documents to review, and put the thing you want to sneak through at the very bottom of the last one” – If all goes well, the Minister might not notice it, but cannot later claim that he was not informed. There’s a big element of that to the coverage of the 9% reduction in media taxes. You were informed, but everyone concerned is hoping that you might not have noticed.

One of the least covered stories in Ireland – perhaps unsurprisingly, since the media are the ones who report stories – is the sheer scale of Government support to big media outlets. Almost all of this support comes indirectly.

Listen to an hour of radio, some day, and count the ads. Count how many of them are from state agencies. Those road safety ads. The bord bia ones. The still-present ads about staying safe from covid. The ads about violence against women. The ads telling you to pay your TV licence. The precise percentage may vary, but it is not unusual for state-sponsored advertising to make up about 50% of all the ads in a given hour on an Irish commercial radio station. This is all money flowing from your pocket, into the Government, and back to the people who are supposed to be reporting the news in a fair and impartial way.

Gript, it goes without saying, has yet to be approached to take ads from a state agency, even though from the perspective of the state, our readers might need more convincing on some matters than those who listen to Claire Byrne, or read Fintan O’Toole.

And were we offered those ads, I would be disinclined to take them. Because advertisers do cost you. A media outlet with a big advertising deal from a supermarket chain is, I’d argue, less likely to run a story revealing that said supermarket is overcharging. Do we really think a media organisation that is funded heavily by the HSE’s advertising team is likely to behave with any more hostility than is absolutely necessary towards the HSE?

And so it is with VAT.

How can a media organisation which has just been given a huge bribe in the Budget be trusted to report news, in the short term – if any such news exists – that might imperil the passage of that budget?

And why, by the way, is it not a scandal that these VAT reductions might not be passed on to consumers? Is there any doubt that, if the tax reductions were on diesel, that the Irish Times and Indo would have reporters canvassing service stations to see how much of the reduction had been “passed on”? Perhaps Statoil and Esso and Shell should send some reporters to newsagents this coming week, and do some investigating of their own.

The headline above calls all of this a shameless bribe, but perhaps that’s wrong. I think there is, you know, a quiet shame amongst some journalists. The Irish media is entirely dependent now on the Government for survival. They know it. The Government knows it. The shameless thing isn’t really the funding – it’s that they take the funding and have the nerve to call themselves “independent”. They are anything but. They are dependent, not independent.

And when you have a media that is dependent on the Government for its very existence, how can you trust them to hold that Government to account, or to risk their good relations with the Government?

I, for one, don’t think you can. And I think, in their hearts, every journalist in this country knows this, too.

Anyway, programming note: I’m off on holiday next week. We’re going to Wales, to explore Snowdonia National Park. So, in the words of Donald Trump, the haters and losers get a week without my constant moaning. To those of you who might, for some unknown reason, miss me, I’ll be back here on Tuesday October 11th.

Enjoy your weekends.

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