To drive the point home, the Culture Minister recently was publicly laughed at during the Oxford Media Convention when he talked about the huge success of the Government's local tv plans. Onlookers said he actually appeared quite baffled for media experts in the crowd to be surprised that dishing out ten of millions of pounds to launch local tv stations which nobody would normally finance as a great success. Lack of viewers and advertising money backs up the widely held assumption tax payers paid through the nose to fund a Government hobby horse.
So yesterday's budget announcement that a review would be help on offering local papers some form of tax relief was welcomed by the local press, as you can well imagine.
The form it will actually take -- if there is tax relief on offer -- was not specified, but it was made clear that it would only apply to England because business rates decisions made in Westminster can only apply to England, following the recent devolution of tax raising powers. So, it's likely that the main consideration will be over business rates -- the tax companies pay, whether or not they are in profit, just to sit in an office and write up local news stories.
Combined with the consideration the Government is putting in to allowing local newspapers to use local BBC stories in their area, you have to say the Government is at least listening to the concerns of the local media (there are around 1,000 local newspapers in England).
If both plans go ahead, we may have a situation where the local tv stations that the Government has, for some reason, funded will have blown their money and withered. At the same time, you could have local newspapers getting a tax break as well as gaining access to publicly funded news stories that have been written up and videoed by BBC staff in their area. There is almost certainly a part of every business person wondering why a struggling industry needs support. If they can't sell enough papers and they can't get enough digital advertising, why should the tax pay help to bail them out, and so on.
I have a certain amount of sympathy for that point of view. However, consider the opposite. Imagine if local newspapers were allowed to go out of business at an even great rate than they are today. Most people would be left reading the BBC online service to get local news. The irony, then, would be extreme. The body which was always a free rival to local papers would've prospered from local papers going to the wall, in terms of eyeball rather than ad revenue, and it would have been the very same BBC that was used as the body through which tens of millions was wasted on fledgling local tv stations nobody either wanted or viewed.
The irony of that possible outcome appears to have prompted a rethink by the Government. It remains to be seen what will happen with the potential tax breaks being considered and the idea being floated that local papers should have access to BBC content. It's hard to imagine much will happen this year given that we're about to have a general election which could potentially lead to a lot of horse trading and dropping of plans in order to form the next coalition.
However, what is being suggested by today's Government certainly appears to be a move in the right direction. Supporting an industry in trouble has to make more sense than building one nobody wants.