There has been some debate about News International’s decision to put the new content of The Times behind a pay wall – to make us pay for “quality journalism” as dear old Rupert put it. Most of the views have tended to go something like this:
“It’s not going to work because we’ll get our news on-line from somewhere else. Doesn’t Murdoch realise that times have moved on. Duh!”
Or like this…
“We hate Rupert Murdoch and hope that his initiative fails so we finally get the chance to point our fingers at him, laugh and chant, ‘fail, fail, loser, loser’.”
I don’t know whether or not Murdoch’s decision will work but I’ve a suspicion that those clever online ‘experts’ will be shown up in the fullness of time. After all, journalism – quality or otherwise – has to be paid for somehow. It really is a simple as that and we should be asking how long The Guardian can be bailed out by the Scott Trust, whether the Telegraph’s ‘reader offer’ strategy will bring in the income and how many other newspapers will put their copy behind a pay wall over the next few years.
And then there’s the BBC. At present the BBC’s news is available free on-line (or rather ‘paid by the license fee’ online) and this undoubtedly acts as a malign drag on the development of an effective, sustainable on-line supply of information. So long as the BBC’s journalism is paid for by a poll tax on the populace, making us pay for news content on-line will present a challenge.
Murdoch’s criticisms of the BBC’s market-making activities and cross-subsidising of news on-line through are valid and we should pay more attention to them if we are interested in sustaining a free press. It’s hard not to agree with this from James Murdoch:
“The corporation is incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it, and what is good for the country. Funded by a hypothecated tax, the BBC feels empowered to offer something for everyone, even in areas well served by the market.”
It is the last part of Murdoch’s observation that should exercise us when thinking about on-line news. At present the BBC’s actions are preventing the development of a market by, in effect, forcing competing news providers to continue distributing their on-line content free. Again young Jimmy nailed it:
“Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the Internet. Yet it is essential for the future of independent journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it. We seem to have decided to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market, and get bigger to compensate."
I hope The Times succeeds behind its paywall – it certainly deserves to for have the bravery to say that the emperor has no clothes and that if we want good journalism we have to pay for it.