TWO great anxieties are running Britain's media ragged as Gordon Brown's visions of Digital Britain take shape. One, stretching back over anxious decades, is the BBC's fear of losing its licence fee (or watching it sliced away by competitors short of advertising). The other, transfixing both national and regional press, sees internet websites taking over print's role without providing anything approaching traditional newspaper revenue streams: no cover price, few subscriptions, only fatally cheap ads. These are the ways that worlds end - unless somebody comes up with a bright idea. So tie these two ends together.
The BBC fights to keep its fee by offering something for everybody, even at the peripheries of a broadcasting brief. Thus, this year, it is raising its website spending to £145m, surging on with iPlayer promotion, beginning to stream full-length programmes on demand to your laptop or mobile phone. The television set in the front room and the PC in the office are no longer separate tools; they are merging, becoming the same. Fantastic value for £142.50 a year, perhaps, but gradually, inexorably, turning into a net loss. For there, just beside the 45-inch flat screen in your living room, is an elephant that can't be ignored.
The further Auntie strays from a traditional brief, the more vulnerable its licensing policies become. Are students sitting in an internet cafe supposed to fork out £140-plus to watch the Six O'Clock News on their Mac? Where's the synergy between detector vans, absurdly threatening letters, and a population on the move, poised to watch anything anytime as easily as they reach for a netbook?
It's a future that doesn't work. It needs fixing. And so, of course, does any sort of future for the printed press and the trained reporters it is still able to employ: the folk who publish pictures of baton-wielding cops, dig out stories of politicians on the take, and push and push again for a cleaner democracy. You might not like or respect journalists; yet try imagining a free country without them and their damned questions - a land where Jacqui Smith rules OK and Damian McBride sets whatever agenda he pleases.
That one two-edged word, indeed, sums up the whole dilemma - "free", as in a country where nobody seems ready to pay for news. Some of that is the press's own fault: it invented free newspapers. But the intractable bit of the problem comes right back to Broadcasting House. If newspapers made a mistake by giving most of their content away for nothing on the web and hoping that advertising would pay them back, the natural next step is a correction: start charging. But how do you do that if your stock-in trade is comprehensive general news coverage and the BBC, spending £145m, intends to deliver it on the web without extra charge?
Then putting a price on what you offer merely diminishes your audience, your ad prospects and your hopes for survival. Then - see it happening all around - the shedding of staff, the sacking of journalists, the hacking-back of reporting resources are just ratchets on a long roll to extinction. It is a particular British bind because the BBC's overarching influence makes it so. But maybe, too, there is a particular British answer. Maybe we shouldn't be thinking about abolishing the licence fee, but changing it.
Put aside American notions of micro-payments for surfing the news or big dollops of cash from rich foundations to keep investigative reporters in business. We're used to paying a flat annual fee for our entertainment. Plonk the money down up front and everything else comes without charge (unless we volunteer to help Rupert Murdoch's pension plan). The difficulty isn't that the system doesn't work, just that what we pay for is morphing so fast and so bewilderingly,
Use a little logic to shape events, then. Split the licence in two. Lump conventional TV and radio into one package that, until a few years ago, would have been the only package around. Then create a second fee package for cyberspace.
Here's an essentially simple equation. If you have a broadband link - the fundamental enabler - you pay for it with a licence fee. Your internet provider already debits directly away: add a modest extra sum - perhaps £1 a week - to that deduction as the cost of public service information on the net. Much of the BBC's own £145m web budget would then come from this pot. The providers take a share for collection and for investing in super-fast broadband. Then the £500m or more that's left goes to help pay for the most threatened public service: the news.
Because we're used to BBC licences, we'd recognise the broad guidelines that broadband could use, too. Internet cafes, for instance, would operate just like TV in pubs or hotels. Visitors would only need to pay once they bought a broadband subscription in the UK. Payments into the pot would go through automatically, at the press of a button. Such mechanics aren't difficult.
What would be more contentious, of course, are the arguments over sharing and dividing. But compare and contrast current rules about the division of BBC licence cash between independent production companies - or the continuing ruckus about top-slicing to Channels 4 and 5. These debates may never end, in one sense: they are also debates that governments must, and can, decide. Indeed, government has already decided who would rule such a roost in the beginning of such a scheme: it's exactly what Ofcom was put there for.
We can all have our notions of where the cash of first instance would go. I'd target it to established print-plus-digital organisations employing trained reporters to cover defined areas (say parliament, local councils, education, courts and health). No boosts, at this stage, for columnists, bloggers or celebrity chat: just serious, factual stuff. And I'd allow the flow of money to change as the move to the net gathered pace. Five hundred million would not stifle change or freeze attitudes, but it would underpin a properly measured process. I'd see the fee as transitional funding on a road to something more stable.
Would a move on these lines be universally loved? Of course not. Nobody likes paying anything extra for something that's "free". But when Murdoch says (as he did the other day): "Nobody is making money with free content on the web except search, and people are used to reading everything on the net for free - and that's going to have to change", there's no point not facing brute fact. Free may be lovely, but it's also increasingly tatty and second-rate. Free - from the net to TV to print - is a concept that doesn't work.
Internet use across the whole of Europe is soaring: up to 14.2 hours a week against 11.5 hours a week of TV-watching by 2010, according to a major Microsoft survey. For many 18- to-24-year-olds, the survey shows, their PC or laptop is the only TV screen they see, and one in seven from that group already take only video-on-demand, watching no live television at all.
Let's be clear about what this means: that old licence-fee models have finite lifespans nearing their end; that some vital public service jobs will get minced in the maw; that the sheer incoherence of change is kicking away too many of the props of democracy; and that Britain, using solutions it has long since devised and understood, can find a way of restoring a little order. One year into any new system along these lines, web use would be booming away as usual, the search for new revenue streams in full spate, the lust for innovation undiminished.
But there would still be the services we take for granted, the tools we need to benchmark our days: the information sources we can't do without when the best things in life can't be free.