My Universal Digital Income scheme is only populist in the best sense

It has been put to me that the scheme for universal digital income (UDI), proposed here, was too indulgent of the long-established print media. Maybe. In particular some national (UK) newspapers are accused of being populist – encouraging and pandering to ill-considered and extreme opinion.

They have, for example, engaged in incitement to see some members of the body politic and judiciary as traitors or enemies of the people. And they are editorially biased.

Indeed. Long before identifiable fake news comes suppression of arguments, failure to articulate contentious premises, and omission of key facts. This said, minor bias is probably as inevitable as being right-handed or left-handed. Strict even-handedness lends credence to absurd standpoints which do not merit consideration, so wasting the time and attention that would be better spent on worthier matters. The insistence on even-handedness favours the suppression of relevant debate.

Of course, my short proposal on UDI could not cover all the ground. There would need to be consensual criteria of which media were eligible to receive funds. Nor is it imagined that the starting formula would be where we would end up. I proposed starting where we are, irrespective of whether this is the starting point we would have chosen.

For UDI to get off the ground it would need discussion in the mass media and this would be unlikely to happen if those media see it as not giving them, as incumbents, an initial bonus. This is how all change happens. For example, when there is a shift towards democracy or a peace settlement, concessions are made to vested interests, the military or terrorists, say, which would not be countenanced if justice and reason, rather than power, were paramount.

An initial bonus is not a permanent one. As indicated in my second post, there would be provision for new media to obtain eligibility. Nothing is set in stone.

In the background, other considerations are at play. Here I mention just two. One is the dominance of advertising. This is too big a subject to expand on here. My position is that most consumer-faced advertising is deeply pernicious and that a start needs to be made on curtailing it. But, apart from the desirability of advertising as a social practice, there is the consideration that, meanwhile, a large and increasing proportion of advertising expenditure is going to just a few huge, foreign-based corporations.

In return, these corporations provide, free of charge to the consumer, search engines and social media platforms. They have not policed these well, and are unlikely to be able to do so without also inadvertently censoring content which has a right to be heard.

The other consideration is the nature of macroeconomic flows of funds and that money is never entirely fluid. At the margins it is possible to debate whether this or that sphere should receive more or less funding. But it is not possible to decide to deprive a whole sphere of funds and allocate them to another.

By “sphere”, I mean, for example, education or health care. Thus there is talk, and in some jurisdictions limited implementation, of citizens being able to dispose of their medical or educational budgets individually rather than the allocation being made top-down by the authorities. It is in this vein that the universal digital income must be seen.

A certain quantity of resources must always be devoted to the gathering and dissemination of news, to informal education, to culture, to entertainment, and so on. In the absence of reliable ways of measuring and so charging for consumption of these goods, there has to be some method of allocation. UDI is such a method.

If anyone has a better method, then let us hear about it. The alternatives are strict adherence to subscriber-only models or asking for donations. In practice, most news outlets on the internet allow some access to all-comers – in other words, they give something away for free, since otherwise potential subscribers would have difficulty knowing what they were to subscribe to. And they place value on getting their message out. The other method is the one we have now, with advertising and tracking algorithms running riot.

Note that UDI applies only to the digital embodiment of media. Thus my interlocutor protested against certain media being eligible for receipt of UDI and receiving undeserved support from an uncritical majority. We can, however, make eligibility depend on recipients not deriving advertising revenue from their digital outlets.

They would continue to be able to obtain advertising revenue from their print versions. They would have to consider whether they wished to risk not having a sufficient fan club to make up for the loss of advertising revenue.

Also, it is not always easy to distinguish entertainment from news, or indeed entertainment from (high) culture or (informal) education. The possibility that many people allocate their “vote” the “wrong” way is one that, in a democracy, and indeed in a market economy, we have to live with.

There are, in any case, other remedies for seriously bad journalism, such as licensing journalists and holding them with their livelihoods to account. Apart from which, some of the objections to press misbehaviour or bias would perhaps be better countered by insisting that individual shareholdings in newspapers and the like should not exceed a certain threshold.

It is hard to see any justification, in a democracy, for allowing major newspapers or broadcast channels to be wholly owned by a single individual or family. This comes close to plutocracy.

As for the objection that UDI would hand funds to possibly unworthy news outlets, this must be seen in the present context where such outlets obtain funds from advertising. Because advertising is intrusive, it steals attention from citizens. It is necessarily biased and therefore, with partial information or disinformation, sets out to distort the market economy.

It costs over two percent of GDP, vastly more than the EU ever did. There is every reason to suppose that the advertising industry allocates revenues to media without serious regard to worthiness. Sometimes it engages in censorship. Compare that with the aggregate and weighted verdict of citizens. Citizens sometimes get things wrong. But they self-correct.

I argued at the outset that we should not delay UDI for the sake of making it near-perfect. Fine-tuning can follow soon enough. In any case, the funding of nationwide newspapers was only one component, which, if controversial, could be left out. More important was the funding of local journalism, which is under existential threat.

It also aims at defusing the controversies over hefty charges imposed on households in order to fund broadcasters (in the UK, the BBC license fee). Further beneficiaries would be internet services currently funded by donations or advertising. Not only Wikipedia.

Remember, it is also intended that the UDI be earmarked by mandate to (probably five) distinct categories, and there would be options for further differentiation, for example, dedicating the funds to radio rather than television, or classical music rather than sports coverage, or dividing the local journalism component between newspapers.

If that is power to the people, so be it. Populism, in the bad sense of gross simplification and needless polarisation, comes about when people are denied power by the system being rigged such that differentiated choices are rendered impossible. Democracy, like society, lives not from (artificial) majorities, but from the interplay of minorities.

In a new era, the universal digital income paves the way for the fourth estate to assist in that interplay better than ever.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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