Tim Luckhurst: The price of press freedom

Since free trade replaced mercantilism, liberals have understood that capitalism can do good even if that is not its first objective.

The benign force Adam Smith called the ‘invisible hand’ was instrumental in the creation of modern journalism. After stamp duty on newspapers was abolished in 1855 – allowing the price of a daily title to drop from 5d to 1d – new investment and technology combined to produce a blitz of paper.

Newspapers were launched all over Britain. And, since publishing them was now profitable, professional reporters were hired to replace the amateur ideologues that had filled the illegal, unstamped press that proliferated under the taxes on knowledge with political passion but few facts. The result was a diverse press that could perform the fourth estate duty of speaking truth to power.

Today a newspaper innovation is launched that can help the free world’s news industry to recover the prosperity it first achieved under Queen Victoria. Johnston Press, Britain’s most prolific newspaper owner with 286 titles, will place the online content of six of its local titles behind pay walls.

Online readers of the Worksop Guardian, Ripley and Heanor News, Whitby Gazette, Northumberland Gazette, Carrick Gazette and Southern Reporter will have to pay £5 for a three-month subscription.

It was widely expected that Rupert Murdoch would be the first proprietor to admit the stark truths that journalism is not free and that no good has come of the nigh universal pretence that, when published online, it should be. But the News Corp Chairman is not the only one who has noticed that free access to online journalism has been bad for newspaper profits, bad for their editorial independence and bad for representative democracy.

Pretending that online journalism costs nothing has left once great titles from Los Angeles to London in the same grim predicament. Each has been obliged to subsidise its online presence from the revenue generated by its printed edition. But it did not take the mightiest intellect to guess that people would be less willing to pay for the printed product if they could read its contents online for nothing.

Newspaper owners were persuaded that online publication should be free by a potent cocktail of commercial fantasy and woolly ideology topped with a sprinkling of youth appeal. Plausible salespeople emerged from the wreckage of the Dotcom boom to persuade them that advertisers would slash each other’s jugulars for the privilege of promoting their products beside the work of brilliant (and expensive) columnists and correspondents.

It was soon plain that believing that links create value is not more rational than imagining that the Mass turns comestibles into the flesh and blood of a prophet. But newspapers were reluctant to admit the emperor was stark bollock naked for fear of sounding old-fashioned and remote from the democratic ethos of the internet.

It is time to admit that giving value away is not democratic. In fact it undermines processes that keep representative democracy healthy. 

In the first years of the internet era thousands of professional journalists have lost their jobs because online revenues cannot pay their salaries. Trained reporters who sit in courts and council chambers have become rare. Community reporting has been replaced by global celebrity gossip touted by PR companies. The workings of the state are no longer monitored at first hand and the electorate is deprived of data it needs to exercise choice.

Johnston Press alone cannot restore sanity. But the experiment it launches this morning should remind us that nothing as valuable as the information required to hold power to account can be produced free of charge. Good journalism is the lifeblood of representative democracy. It supplies the raw material without which freedom of conscience becomes meaningless. Ensuring its supply is essential.

The internet is a stupendously valuable tool.  It can bring inspiring, diligent and creative reporting and commentary into every home. But it will not do so by obliging consumers to accept the shoddy, propagandist ranting some categorise as citizen-journalism and less credulous critics recognise as a deplorable reversion to the days when news was always deployed as a political weapon and only occasionally reported, explained and analysed.

Never mind that Johnston Press is primarily interested in profit. It is no more a commercial entity than the Washington Post at the time of Watergate or the Sunday Times when it exposed the scandal of thalidomide.  It is leading a change that must happen. People who care about democracy must hope it happens fast. We have not attempted political freedom without well-funded, intelligent journalism, but we can assume that it would not be pretty. When accurate reporting dies it is usually replaced by gossip, prejudice and bigotry.  

Tim Luckhurst is Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent and a former editor of The Scotsman

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