A thought-provoking article by David Mitchell in today’s Observer. He argues that, whatever we might think of Rupert Murdoch and his deeds, the decision to impose a paywall on the Times and Sunday Times doesn’t deserve the opprobrium heaped upon it by bien-pensant liberals. Ultimately, it is important that a professional, independent, accountable news media exists, and by weaning consumers off the notion that information is free, Murdoch might be helping to ensure that. The alternative, Mitchell suggests, is to hand the whole process over to the blogosphere:
Not that there’s anything wrong with amateur bloggers – except that there’s masses wrong with thousands of them. While some of the stuff written for free on the internet is brilliant, a lot of it – probably most of it – is shit. For every badly written, offensive, incendiary tabloid column, there are hundreds of online opinions that are worse and contain even more lies – provable lies in many cases, but usually coming from someone whose anonymity or poverty effectively preclude their being sued. The press can’t stray too far from the truth or its legal bills get out of control.The problem is, it’s not just about incendiary tabloid columns, the Littlejohns and the the Moirs, is it? It’s every article that’s nothing more than a rehashed press release, with no independent research or second opinion. It’s every disguised advertorial for the newspaper proprietor’s other products or for his political proclivities. It’s every narcissistic lifestyle column about how exasperating middle-class life in London’s more fashionable postcodes can be. It’s the remorseless encroachment of vacuous celebrity culture into areas that were once free from its sulphurous embrace. Just as with blogs, there’s masses wrong with thousands of them. Sturgeon’s Law, as ever, prevails; 90% of everything is crap.
But the most galling wrongness in this context is when articles are blatantly lifted from blogs and other online sources without attribution, because just as bloggers are too poor to be sued, they’re also too insignificant to be able to create waves when they’re the victims of plagiarism. For all that legitimate journalists complain about amateur media, many of them would find life considerably tougher without it.
There is much that is good about the mainstream news media. David Mitchell’s columns for one thing; he’s a clever, funny polemicist whose one-liners often make their point more cogently than any number of ‘proper’ journalists can manage. I don’t know how much he’s paid, but I’m sure he’s worth it. However, his conclusion, that “many people only really value something they’ve paid for” deserves rather more analysis than he gives it. It’s not just money that persuades consumers that something is better than it is; it’s an association with what many still perceive to be ‘real’ media – whether it’s The Times or The Observer, BBC or CNN, Angling Times or Kerrang! – that often persuades them that what they’re reading or watching or hearing is rather better than it really is.
PS: Meanwhile, Shane Richmond deals with the paywall side of Mitchell’s argument.