Christina Patterson: If you're reading it, you should be paying for it

Friday 15 November 2013 05:13

On Tuesday night, I sought salvation, but found only counsels of despair. "The future is ghastly," said Claire Enders, a leading analyst of the industry. And then, just in case we hadn't got the message, "the outlook is extremely bleak".

We were talking, of course, about newspapers. "Is the Fourth Estate in Permanent Decline?" was the question under discussion, and then, in brackets, and the brackets were all too relevant, "(and what can we do about it?)". The answer to the first question is easily summed up. "Yes," said the turkeys queueing for Christmas on the panel. "We are seeing the kind of crisis we haven't had since the Second World War," said John Lloyd, from the FT, who chaired the event. "We've been ill-prepared for it," said Anne McElvoy, political columnist for the let's-accentuate-the-positive Evening Standard.

"My personal view," said Andrew Currah, a lecturer in "the digital economy" at Oxford, "is that the Fourth Estate will decline." Only Eleanor Mills, from the subsidised-to-the- tune-of-50-million-a-year Times, was upbeat. "The Fourth Estate," she declared, "is in pretty good health." Oh good. I was about to shoot myself.

"We are all media now," beamed Robert Phillips, CEO of Edelman, in whose swanky offices we were sitting, and whose posh canapés we had just bolted down. Indeed we are. Every half-wit in their bedroom. Every begoateed young wannabe gunslinger blogging away in Starbucks. Every nutter vomiting out vitriol, every parasite cutting and pasting and posting, every website "aggregating" the content paid for by someone else.

"Aggregate", in fact, turned out to be the word of the night. To assemble, to collect, to utilise – to steal. It's the basis for the brave new digital economy. Take some facts that someone else has collected, marinade in spleen, toss in a frying pan of rancid oil and voila! A whole new load of "content"! Flipped, flambéed, and, best of all, free! Free to the user (we used to call them readers) and free to the frier. Now, at long last, we have freedom fries.

Just when did it happen, this revolution that convinced us that the words we read should be as free as the air we breathe? Yes, it was the internet, of course, that god turned monster that changed our lives and is beginning to change our brains. But just when did it happen that the bright guys who own and run the media decided that what cost them tens of millions to provide, they would also give for free? We'll work the money stuff out later they said, these known-for-their-nous multi-millionaires. Work it out later? What kind of business model is that?

The answer, said Andrew Currah, was public subsidy. A kind of tick-box Arts Council, presumably, for the press. Nice try, but I don't think so. Perhaps, said Anne McElvoy, we could get rich people to pay for investigative journalism? (But who, she added, would investigate the rich people?) "The newspaper industry," said Claire Enders, à la Pontius Pilate, "must find its own solutions to its own ills."

Well, perhaps it must. But perhaps we also all have a responsibility to foster a culture that holds on to the belief that the best things in life are not always free, that we pay for our food, and our homes and our clothes, we pay to see films, and concerts and plays. and that if we care about the world we live in, we should also care about the news we get, and the way we think about it, and the way we analyse it, and the way we talk about it. YouTube if you want to, but I prefer to read some nicely crafted prose.

A moving reminder of the debt we owe our soldiers

Poetry, said Robert Frost, "is a fresh look and a fresh listen". So, you could say, is any good art, and so was a Saturday afternoon spent weeping over giant puppets. The puppets were from a South African puppet company called Handspring, and they were the stars of Michael Morpurgo's novel turned play, War Horse.

The novel is, like much of Morpurgo's work, wonderful, but the production, recently transferred from the National to the New London Theatre in the West End, is something like genius. Essentially, it tells the tale of a thousand poems, novels and films, of the young boys sent, in Wilfred Owen's phrase, to "die as cattle" when the murder of an Austrian royal, in a provincial city, triggered a world war. Those giant wooden horses, galloping straight towards me in the front row, touched me more than many of those poems, novels and films – and I, I'm afraid, am someone who likes my animals chargrilled with garlic on a plate.

We can't, in fact, be reminded often enough of the horrors of war, and of the price that young men pay for the whims of our politicians. I don't know whether the Human Rights Act, as the High Court ruled this week, should apply to soldiers on the battlefield, seeking to maim and kill as they themselves are maimed and killed. But I do know that we owe our soldiers much more than we give them, much better equipment, better pay, better care – and much, much more respect.

Just in case you thought Coke was safe...

The last time I went for a swim at my mother's local leisure centre, I was surprised to see a nice bit of public art. "Oh, an Andy Warhol!" I thought ridiculously, as I scanned the pool for a lane marked "very slow".

The giant Coca-Cola bottle looming over the pool was not, of course, an Andy Warhol, but the metaphorical equivalent of a notch on a bedpost, a symbol of "market penetration", and another sign of the global giant's long association with, and sponsorship of, sport.

It's clearly a good thing that consumers of the fizzy drink that tastes like old metal dipped in caffeine are encouraged to swim, or run, or pump, between sips – a good thing not just because fizzy drinks are basically sugar bowls diluted with water and swallowed, and of no nutritional value whatsoever, and wreak havoc with your blood sugar, and make you fat, but because they can also make you ill. In a recent study, people drinking large quantities of cola suffered reduced potassium levels, fatigue, vomiting and muscle problems. It might not be a bad idea to get those muscles tip-top first.

The real mystery, however, is Diet Coke. Most people who drink it, and nearly everyone who claims to be addicted to it, seems to be overweight. It is, in fact, the advertiser's dream: a product which apparently creates the very market it aims to reach.

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