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

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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.

www.politicalblonde.com

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