Should we pay to read the Times online?

(Random thoughts on a tweet sent to David Aaronovitch)

I have never quite bought the argument advanced by some bloggers and fellow tweeters that there is something intrinsically immoral about charging for online content. In fact, it would probably be much better from the point of view of promoting journalistic integrity if newspapers relied less on advertising revenue and more on income provided by sales of their products.

Market forces will, I suppose, decide whether the new pay-to-view arrangements adopted by Murdoch’s flagship UK newspaper survive. As far as I can see, there are no great issues of principle here at all.

I have, nonetheless, thus far refrained from subscribing to the new “pay-wall” protected Times – even though I often read the online version in the past. A major attraction, in my case, was David Aaronovitch’s column. Not that I, by any means, agree with everything David has to say. In fact I often disagree. But, in my old age, I easily become bored reading articles I entirely agree with. Far more interesting to read intelligent coherent stuff from someone like David A and have my assumptions and opinions challenged. (Of course the newspapers – even the Times on occasion – are also full of reams of imbecilic incoherent stuff which I also disagree with, but I derive far less pleasure from reading that than I do from reading David Aaronovitch.)

So why – apart from being a cheapskate – do I refuse to hand over any money to continue reading David’s excellent journalism?

Well there are many reasons to despise Rupert Murdoch and his empire. My late father was fond of citing all of these reasons and his ashes up on the summit of Ilkley Moor would begin turning little pirouettes if his first born son ever handed over a penny to his favourite bĂȘte noir.

This is not, of course, to suggest that David Aaronovitch is doing anything terrible by working for Murdoch. Many of us end up working for firms and institutions we do not entirely feel happy with. I think I would baulk at being asked to write software for the design of (say) a cluster bomb, but I would - in the highly unlikely event that the Murdoch empire offered me some money to write something - be happy enough to accept the commission. While Murdoch’s business empire is responsible for many crimes against humanity – such as inflicting the soap opera “Neighbours” on an undeserving world - I’m not quite sure that the moral issues thereby raised are of quite the same magnitude as those raised by nasty weapons.

It is also a rather pointless gesture on my part to head a movement, of which I am the only member, which boycotts the Times. The boycott of Apartheid South Africa – though essentially symbolic in its effects – made sense. It enjoyed widespread international support and was directed at a regime that was a pariah in the eyes of every remotely reasonable person* - regardless of his or her general political views. There was a clear goal for the boycott and it ended when apartheid was dismantled. It is not at all clear what, if anything, would end the boycott of Murdoch’s Sun newspaper on Merseyside. Even though this boycott enjoys a great deal more support than my one-man Times boycott, it has, like my boycott, no real goal. It may be doing something for literacy skills in Merseyside (well unless they all read the Daily Sport instead) but it is hard to see the point of the thing.

Let me instead take a different tack: Just imagine you were a really big fan of “I'm the Leader of the Gang (I Am)”. Hard to imagine I concede, but some people must have been. It was top of the charts for four weeks after all. Would you buy it if you saw it on sale somewhere? (Let’s assume for the sake of this thought experiment that you can be sure that no royalties from the sale will actually reach the pockets of Gary Glitter and all the money will go to charity for poorly kittens) You wouldn’t, would you? This would not be a rational decision that you could justify to someone else, but you simply wouldn’t be able to do it would you?

Now I realize that this is a rather poor analogy on all sorts of counts, but it illustrates the point I wish to make. In the end, I suppose, I have to concede that my stance is not really rational; it’s just a matter of deeply held feelings.

Perhaps I should try and overcome those prejudices and start forking out £2 a week. If the Times were owned by someone nice and honourable and non-megalomaniacal who was not trying to take control of every media outlet in the world I probably would. As things stand, I shall probably just wait to see if the subscription model fails. I suppose I rather hope it does.

POSTSCRIPT I feel compelled to confess, publicly that, despite my remarks above, I did subsequently give in and start paying £8 per month to Mr Murdoch. It was very nice being able to read Caitlin Moran, David Aaronovitch, and even (sometimes) Daniel Finkelstein whenever I felt like it, but I did not find much else in the Times that particularly appealed to me. Also, since I wrote the above post, Mr Murdoch's power and influence in the world has waned somewhat. Currently on an economy drive while funding two children through university, I've cancelled my DD for a while. I realize none of this is of any particular interest to anyone else, but I like to set the record straight. What is of general interest is that the battle over the "Times paywall" still rages - on Twitter at least - and still conflates morality and simple economics in an unedifying fashion.

•Not, of course, in the eyes of Margaret Thatcher. I rest my case.

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