Monday, January 24, 2011

Rupert Murdoch may be evil, but that doesn't mean his paywall is

The media mogul has been dismissed for introducing his Times paywall, but what if it actually works?
Rupert Murdoch is a pretty uncontroversial figure among people I know. Everyone agrees that he's a monstrous arsehole who wants to ruin everything for everyone.

Liberals who've reluctantly come round to thinking that Margaret Thatcher might have had a point about the extremes of 1970s trade unionism, that Kim Jong-il just feels excluded from the international community and that Noel Edmonds is actually bloody good at what he does are unswerving in their hatred of the Murdoch empire and everything it stands for.

This is the man Dennis Potter named his cancer after and, to most of my friends, that seems about right.

Perhaps this sums up all that is unrepresentative and self-serving about my circle of acquaintance: like a smug and insular cult predicting the end of the world and having sex with each other's children, we're holed up with our certainties and only ever indulge in self-affirming conversations.

 Or maybe we're right and Murdoch is a man whose dedication to money is surpassed only by his enthusiasm for the merciless elements of the political and economic rightwing and his determination to bludgeon the British liberal establishment to smithereens with the granite-hard, post-colonial chip on his shoulder.

Either way, I wasn't surprised to read, in all the places I usually read unsurprising things, that the Times website's paywall is a horrible thing. Most of the criticism centres around how it won't work: few web users will pay for something they're accustomed to getting for free, particularly when they can still get something very similar for free elsewhere. I'm perfectly willing to buy that – as the former Times reader probably didn't say when confronted with the paywall.

This prediction of failure is accompanied by rejoicing because it's a Rupert Murdoch idea, so it must, of course, be evil. All that is necessary for good to triumph, the reasoning seems to be, is for evil men to do something stupid. And evil. But I don't think that everything evil men do is evil, any more than the paywall's critics believe that everything rich men do will make a profit. The Times paywall may fail as a business model, but that's the only problem I have with it.

Others have ideological objections. When the paywall went up a week ago, the Guardian website published an article effusively welcoming former Times online readers and referring to its contrasting approach as "a belief in an open internet". This is a guarded way of alluding to the absurd notion that because people are accustomed to getting content for free on the internet, they have a right to do so and that charging money for online access to people's work, whether it's film, music, television or journalism, is ipso facto a form of extortion.

This argument, already appealing because no one likes to pay for stuff, is made more so in this case by the counter-argument's close association with Fox News's presiding malevolence.

 But that doesn't make it right. There is nothing morally superior about the Guardian's decision to keep its website free – it's merely a difference of opinion about what is practical. Both News Corporation and the Guardian Media Group are desperate to save the newspaper business in the online age – to find a way of continuing to pay journalists and editors for professionally produced content, rather than surrender newsgathering and the written word to the unaccountable blogosphere.

Not that there's anything wrong with amateur bloggers – except that there's masses wrong with thousands of them. While some of the stuff written for free on the internet is brilliant, a lot of it – probably most of it – is shit. For every badly written, offensive, incendiary tabloid column, there are hundreds of online opinions that are worse and contain even more lies – provable lies in many cases, but usually coming from someone whose anonymity or poverty effectively preclude their being sued. The press can't stray too far from the truth or its legal bills get out of control.

It's exciting to live in a world where a vibrant blogging scene complements newspapers. But it would be a step back for civilisation if it came to replace them. This is not a debate about "dead tree technology", but about the future of journalism as a job for which people get paid.

 If, as I assume, NewsCorp and GMG both think it's important to preserve that, surely they should wish each other well in their attempts to find a way of doing so?

But, like the BBC gloating at ITV's troubles, many advocates of the Guardian's approach are too thrilled at the discomfiture of their old enemy, the demon Murdoch, to recognise that they share common interests. Instead, they're toying with rhetoric that courts a common foe: the online attitude which effectively denies the existence of intellectual property and, for all its love of content, is apparently happy to beggar its creators.

By implying that it thinks content should be free for moral reasons, the Guardian website is playing an extremely dangerous game. It's an approach which not only makes it hypocritical to charge for the printed newspaper and the iPhone app, but also gives hostages to fortune: what if the Murdoch paywall, or some other "micro-payment" system, starts to work? Are we to believe that the Guardian wouldn't institute something similar? Or would it be happy to be reduced to the online equivalent of a freesheet?

There are two schools of thought about how to recruit a live audience for a television or radio recording. Most programmes give all the tickets away for free, as a result of which they have to issue roughly twice as many as there are seats in order to fill up the auditorium because people who haven't paid for their tickets often don't turn up. It's an inexact science and often results either in audience members being turned away or there being empty seats. But a minority of programmes charge for tickets – usually just a nominal sum. Those shows never have to overissue for a full house.

Like the bile that is spouted in newspaper website comment sections, this demonstrates a lamentable truth: many people only really value something they've paid for.