Joan Smith: Hurrah for Murdoch: paid-for news keeps democracy alive

Related Topics

Not long ago, I heard a former government minister boast that he hadn't bought a newspaper for a decade. "I read them free on the net," he declared. Free to him is what he meant, and I could tell that he hadn't thought about how all that "free" material comes to be on newspaper websites. He'd obviously never considered how much it costs to produce newspapers that cover everything from catwalk shows to conflicts where reporters risk serious injury or death.

Occasionally the two things come together: when international fashion writers cried off from covering the first Pakistan fashion week, fearing they might be caught in a terrorist attack, the organiser invited war correspondents who turned up in droves, delighted to have a break from writing about the Taliban. Gathering news and creating a stable of knowledgeable writers to analyse it is hugely expensive, and the industry's current business model – watching paid-for circulation fall while giving away content on the net – isn't sustainable.

Last week, just after the IoS and its daily stable-mate announced a change of ownership, Rupert Murdoch's company News International revealed that readers of The Times and Sunday Times will have to pay £2 a week from June for access to the papers' websites. The move was welcomed by the broadcaster John Humphrys, who went to the heart of the matter: "Good journalism has to be paid for, just as we have to pay for the plumber who fixes a leak, or it will not survive."

He's right, despite knee-jerk responses that charging for access undermines the principle of the internet or that newspapers are no longer necessary because "we are all journalists now". There are many excellent blogs written by people with inside knowledge, but much of the material on the net is unreliable because it's put there by people who aren't journalists; they confuse gossip and rumour with fact. In the digital age, sources matter as much as ever: if I want to find out about a health problem, I might look at the online BMJ but I wouldn't trust something posted by someone whose cousin in Milwaukee once had similar symptoms.

Journalism is a profession and reporters are taught to question everything they're told. It is only human to believe an extraordinary range of "facts" which turn out not to be true; in the old days, people passed them on at work or in the pub, now they can put them on the internet for millions to read. That shouldn't be confused with journalism; and it's unhealthy for democracy, which depends on an electorate that is able to make informed choices. All sorts of people tell lies to get power and it's the job of journalists to weasel out the truth, whether it's about immigration or why we went to war in Iraq.

Sometimes it's necessary to confront authority or take risks. When I was covering the Yorkshire Ripper murders and questioned police competence, I was threatened with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. Last month, I had to be rescued by riot police when a crowd in Sierra Leone turned ugly. But I have known reporters much braver than me, such as the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who went on doing their job even when their lives were threatened. Politkovskaya covered the savage conflicts in Chechnya and was shot dead in Moscow four years ago.

Civil society exists because of people like her. Frankly, £2 a week is very good value if it ensures that newspapers survive in the digital age.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform