Of News, Paywalls and New Ancient History

Everyone as boring as me on the subject of copyright, community and contemporary culture (OMG it alliterates!) has something to say about the Great Paywall of Murdoch. It’s coming to an interface near you in June, we are told.

So naturally, I have been ruminating on this too. My thoughts were crystallised when I read Roy Greenslade’s article in the Evening Standard today (which only recently become a free paper in London – an irony there). Greenslade’s argument is essentially as follows. The paywall might work, it might not, but no matter because we must all remember that “news” is a public service:

“How can we preserve a public service that, not to be too pompous about it, is a key — arguably the key — bulwark of our democracy?”

And in conclusion, he says:

“If people also turn away from online papers that offer serious, quality editorial, the likely outcome is a damaging democratic deficit. We cannot afford to allow that to happen.”

This, I suddenly realised with great and rapid clarity, is tripe.

News media of all kinds is and has been for at least a century, 90% pointless cruft designed to get people to look at advertising. I defy anyone to prove otherwise.

If you read The Times in its entirety every day, you will hardly be more informed or enriched than if you hadn’t. Entertained, certainly, stressed and overly-opinionated on arcane matters of celebrity, party politics or sport perhaps, but on no measure I know of could you be said to be a better person for having read whether or not David Cameron’s wife is helping him win the election. What does it really do to know that an African leader has made a speech to Parliament about the importance of the Commonwealth? And obviously, anything to do with a reality TV show is almost certainly irrelevant to anyone other than the people in front of the cameras.

So charitably, Greenslade is talking about the remaining 10% of news that is somehow worthwhile. MP’s expenses fraud, EU waste and cronyism, police corruption, NHS management scandals and the like. This is of course laudable and must be investigated and reported. Perhaps this end justifies the means in publishing yet another resume of Katie Price’s latest man in exchange for some ad revenue. Or charging for it at the point of consumption, as Mr Murdoch thinks. The subtext of Greenslade’s argument is therefore that the cruft pays for the public service.

No. The point that Murdoch and his supporters miss is this. News media isn’t just in decline in the face of a free global information distribution system. “Quality” news (the 10%) is in decline because it’s always been in decline: flattened by the very platform on which it has been distributed for the last few hundred years. Information wants to be free. Music does, art does too. People can create, talk, write, communicate without money or the profit motive. What the publishing industry does is impose gatekeepers to concentrate and extract profit from those activities, and in doing so distorts and obfuscates the truth. What we have seen in print media is very similar to what we have seen in music publishing, only now being revealed to us by the Internet. The profit-driven mechanisms that controlled who said or wrote what, who read or heard what, are in decline.

But don’t get me wrong: if people really want to read about Katie Price, they will write about it. They will blog, they will twit, they will seek out distribution methods for the love of that information. But what is true of music and home movies can be equally true about investigative journalism. Why wait for a professional journalist to expose corruption in your local council when you can use the Internet to do that yourself if you care enough? The cult of the amateur it may be, but what, really, is wrong with that?

I think the future of news will be a rediscovery of an ancient history. The leitmotif of the last few centuries – the “global village” and ever larger, extended “communities” of cowed, bewildered humans managed and mined by ruthless corporate media networks will give way to the ancient patterns. Small, hyper-local communities, whether geographic or virtual, will focus on themselves and their immediate neighbours. They will not be “isolated” in the sense we understand that term today because they will control their own communications, and not the other way around. They will be liberated by the ability to organise around what they think is right, without recourse to information gatekeepers telling them what to think. It might take a while, but we’re getting there, and Murdoch is driving the train.