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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy as ECB finally wield the axe
Life and Style
food + drink
Voices
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959
voicesWard committed no crime, and the truth is still being covered up, writes Geoffrey Robertson QC
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Charter Selection: Graphic Designer, Guildford

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Charter Selection: This renowned and well establish...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas