Rupert Murdoch's attack on Google and other "aggregators" looks at first sight to be a clear-cut case of naked self-interest from an ageing media mogul determined to protect a print news empire built up over 50 years. But while Mr Murdoch is no doubt primarily motivated by the bottom line of his beloved NewsCorporation, there is a bigger issue at stake – and it is one that should worry anyone who believes in democracy and the accountability of those with power.
Google and other websites make big money from the audiences they attract for their content, which is Hoovered up from countless news sources all around the world. The creators of that content, meanwhile, earn not a bean from such aggregators – they often do not even give their permission for it to be taken – and are unable to sell it for themselves online because it has already been made freely available.
To add insult to injury, having seen their content filched by the search engines, newspapers then find themselves beholden to them. In order to attract visitors to their own sites – and thus generate advertising revenue – newspapers must strive to ensure their content appears as prominently as possible with the aggregators. It is a damage-limitation exercise because the advertising-only business model does not work. Not a single mainstream newspaper anywhere in the world is making a profit from selling advertising on its website. Mr Murdoch is right to say that in such a world, the future for newspapers that invest in journalism is bleak. But do not weep for our narrow commercial interests: something much more important will be lost with the demise of newspapers. Imagine a world where there is no longer a free press to hold to account politicians, business leaders or anyone else in authority.
This is what, every day, journalists do; their work, above all, is a check on the power of those who would otherwise be unfettered, from the lowliest parish council official to the largest multinational corporation. And this is what stands to be lost if Google and others continue to threaten the economic viability of high-quality journalism, wherever it appears.