Journalism

Nick Davies on Rupert Murdoch and the digital economy bill

A battle is emerging: the people of the planet against its media proprietors. Who’s going to win?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m going to mention the digital economy bill again. This is the last time this year, I promise.

I was listening to the Benn Journalism Lecture 2009 given by Nick Davies, investigative journalist and author of Flat Earth News, on 24th November. It’s a fascinating, wide-ranging speech on truth and falsehood in the UK’s national newspapers and the problems with self-regulation and the Press Complaints Commission.

During the questions after the lecture, Davies mentions the digital economy bill as it relates to Rupert Murdoch’s plan to charge to read the news on his websites (known as a ‘pay wall’). One of the problems facing Murdoch, Davies says, is:

that it only takes one geek to come over his pay wall, grab his news, get over the other side, and mirror it out at eight o’clock in the morning across thousands and thousands of other websites across the planet, and still nobody will pay to read Rupert’s wretched news. Right? So what is he going to do about that?

[…]

And have you seen that Peter Mandelson, who goes on holiday in Corfu with the Murdochs, has now introduced legislation […] dealing with audio and video — right, you download those without consent you get cut off — and he’s slipped in a paragraph that says, ‘This could have wider applications in the future in relation to copyright’.

That’s Rupert’s clause. Right? It is happening. What you’re looking at here is the entire world wants the internet to be unregulated. This tiny, very powerful elite of media proprietors want the internet to be regulated so that they can make money out of it.

And so a battle will emerge. The people of the planet against its media proprietors. Who’s going to win? I wouldn’t bet on the people.

Cue a horrified silence once he’d said that.

People have been calling Murdoch stupid for trying to build a pay wall around his news websites. As Davies mentioned earlier in his lecture, you can call Murdoch many things but stupid isn’t one of them.

Don’t underestimate Murdoch. The best way to win an argument is to make sure of the outcome before you start. Murdoch won’t be building a pay wall without ensuring the odds are in his favour.

Personally, Murdoch has yet to convince me his pay wall plan will succeed. He’s trying to use an old business model on a new medium, and the way to make money out of news on the internet is to embrace it, not cut it off. But whether he succeeds or fails, the long-term effects of the copyright clauses in the digital economy bill are very worrying.

Those clauses are only there for the benefit of the tiny but powerful elite of media proprietors. There are ways to reduce illegal file-sharing and ensure authors and journalists are paid for their efforts, but the digital economy bill doesn’t contain any of them.