When I was very young in the early 1930s there was a period of some two years during which my parents could not afford to buy a daily newspaper. Instead my father, who was out of work and on the very small, state provided, dole, would call in to our local public library to read, I think, the Daily Mirror and the Times. Sometimes the library copies were in use - there were many families needing to watch every penny - and he had to wait his turn. Others were waiting their turn too and the library became a local, entirely male, gossip parlour.
My brother and I were ‘little pigs with big ears' and we would eavesdrop as my father, on his return, told my mother what was up nationally and, courtesy of the gossip parlour, locally. So I grew up believing that buying a newspaper was a luxury - something like an orange or a banana - and that access, free, to ‘the news' was one of the civic rights that came with being a member of a benevolent society.
It never occurred to me to wonder what would happen if nobody bought a daily newspaper and everyone's father went to the public library instead. That, in essence, is the situation which the newspaper proprietors are threatened with: not by the public libraries but by the web.
Rupert Murdoch has now said that he intends to charge web users for access to some (what ‘some' is he has not said) of the contents of his newspapers. He is not the first proprietor to take this line but he has distinguished himself from the others by making his private intentions public as an important news item in their own right. He is taking the web on.
If others do not follow, Murdoch, and, as he would argue, they, will be in increasing, probably terminal, difficulty. Is that something which should worry all of us? What would life be like without newspapers? The newspapers have come to play an important role in free democratic societies. In parenthesis, they play an important role in unfree societies too, but for a different reason. The freedom of the press is so constitutionally significant that even our parliament when in a mood to declare its sovereignty in strident terms is wary of challenging it. Indeed we value that freedom so highly that we permit the press to enjoy considerable power without any convincing way of holding it to account for the way, however objectionable, in which that power is exercised.
But these are things which, in truth, we attach to a ‘national', and, therefore, ultimately controllable, press. The point about - and, arguably, the value in - the web is that it is the plumbing which makes possible a ‘press' which is supremely not ‘national' and ultimately not controllable. Should such a press be afforded the same constitutional position and be permitted so willingly the same unaccountable power? If not, freedom is diminished. But, if it is, that freedom may depend on the integrity of those who are not controllable. A dilemma?
If, however, others do follow Murdoch the result will be the same. The newspapers will migrate to the web and, at some point, we will be faced with the same dilemma.
And even if public libraries survive the onslaught of the web, what will have happened to my childish notion that access ‘free' to the ‘news' is a civic right? Although the web can be used as a huge global public library, that is little practical use if material is not decipherable without payment of an access fee. You cannot do that with a newspaper bought by a municipal library. Licence fee financed television and radio as the poor man's substitute? Somehow that does not feel right.
Rupert Murdoch is a thoughtful man and, although his business interests are at the front of his mind, it seems unlikely that he has not thought about these problems. He may argue that they are coming anyway and that it is time for all of us to wake up. If so, I, for my part, am happy to praise him for timely realism.
I have always believed that the web was a force for much good because of what it would do to the power base of political establishments. It is clear however that it brings with it also the need to rethink some concepts (particularly ‘national' concepts) which we have been inclined to see as fundamental and immutable.
Get our weekly email