17 May 2012
Our beloved government, in the shape of the Department for Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) is about to close down the excellent body that pays writers a little fee whenever one of their books is borrowed from a public library. To cover their already well covered arses, they’ve carried out a “consultation”. This is one writer’s response to their questions. I could not possibly put it better myself.
I am a journalist and author, member of the National Union Of Journalists – extraordinary you have not included the union as a body you want to hear from, given that hundreds of us have written books.
• Q1: While acknowledging the effective administration of PLR by the Registrar, the government is now proposing to transfer the statutory function of administering the PLR scheme from the Registrar to another existing public body, effectively abolishing the Registrar as a separate public body. Please provide your views on whether you think the PLR functions should be transferred to another body.
“While acknowledging the effective administration of PLR by the Registrar…” – why did you continue with this sentence, this policy, this consultation after writing those words? How many Quangos or government departments or private companies would merit that start to an opening question? What’s the point? This is fathomlessly silly interference with an organisation for which nobody – including yourselves! – has anything but praise. In your preamble in the consultation you actually state that the Registrar has “successfully kept operating cost below the cap set by Ministers in the first year of the spending review period” and that the Registrar is working with you on further improvements. This is a small expert unit that’s supremely effective by all accounts – and yet you want to transfer “PLR functions into a larger body”. Could you have a think and maybe even let us know when that last proved to be a great idea. Take something that’s small and effective and lose it in a much larger operation. You just know it’ll be a cock-up, don’t you?
• Q2: Following the transfer of functions the government is proposing that a cap on administrative spend will be imposed on the body that takes over the PLR function and has confirmed that the PLR author fund will not be used to pay for the transfer. Do you have any concerns about the impact a transfer of functions from the Registrar will have on PLR rights holders? If so please provide details.
The existing Registrar and staff know what they’re doing and do it well. A new management of the Registrar’s functions will not know what they’re doing because of total absence of experience and… seem likely not to do it well. Should your mad scheme go ahead I’d like to place a bet on when the first press release will be issued apologising for “teething problems”. They will underpay, they will overpay, they will neglect paying altogether. It’s as if you’re reading from a self-help manual titled Things That Work: How To Mess Them Up.
• Q3: Though the government appreciates that it would be appropriate to transfer the PLR function to another copyright payment body, ALCS for example, statutory functions and distribution of associated government funding must be administered by a public body. Consequently the government’s preferred option is to transfer the PLR function to the British Library. Do you anticipate any problems or conflicts of interest in transferring the PLR function to the British Library?
The British Library quite specifically has no function that’s anything like administering PLR. They are being considered for this job for the remarkably feeble reason that they present no legal difficulties – and on the other hand, one gathers, have an empire-building management that seeks to promote itself via the glory of the institution and which doesn’t give a toss about authors’ welfare (strange but true in my experience of arguments over at the copyright law reform consultation). So the “problems” would be that they’re likely to make a complete pig’s ear of it because of administrative inexperience. The “conflicts of interest” would be… that they’re not really interested in doing the job for the benefit of the people who need them to do the job.
Specifically on costs of the proposed move, it must bemuse all onlookers that DCMS has imagined that moving the PLR office from Stockton to London will save money short-term – given current under-budget efficiency versus the costs of upheaval and moving and probable redundancies and probable new equipment – or long-term – given the higher cost of everything in London and especially within a showy, space-wasteful set-up like the British Library which must spend at least as much money on cultural showbiz and general flash as it does on nuts and bolts service. As far as I can tell there’s never been so much as a pot of paint wasted up in Stockton. And then there’s the employment issue and then there’s the infernal issue of centralisation of culture in London.
However, fortunately I have a solution to save face, money, jobs, even prevent the DCMS making a complete public arse of itself for years to come (we’re writers you know, we won’t forget). Do nothing except “rebrand” the PLR Registry in Stockton the British Library PLR Registry. Put a sign up if you must. Adjust the letter-heading as present supplies run out. Then the boss of the BL can write to Stockton once a year (email to save a stamp) and say “How’s it going? Same old same old brilliant I expect?” and that will be that. DCMS gets “one less public body – official” (counting as justification for a policy, eh? real intellectual corker but… whatever floats your rubber duck), BL gets a feather in its cap (“Oh yes we run the PLR scheme you know – how could those crazy authors ever suggest we don’t care about them?”), Stockton holds on to the jobs and its role in keeping the nation’s creative wheels turning (and H McMillan has no need to rotate in his grave after all), there’s no interruption to brilliant normal service to authors, and the whole thing runs under budget as ever which will of course be all down to the fine work of DCMS and you can boast about it in Parliament whenever something else goes awry. All this and you don’t even have to pay me a consultation fee!”