Fawlty Times

In the internet age, nobody can have a monopoly.

At long last we know the date – it’s to be June. Rupert Murdoch has decreed that May 31st will be the last day on which we can all read the Times Online for free. King Canute may have commanded the waves to go back, but it wasn’t his idea; this one is all Roop’s.

Two weeks ago when the old boy announced his attention to do battle with the New York Times, a famous US journalist wrote an open letter to ‘all journalists’ asking when the American press would ‘wake up to the fact that Murdoch is not one of us’. This wasn’t a sleight aimed at Australians: he meant people who write the news, and tell the public what the bad guys don’t want that public to know. Murdoch certainly isn’t one of those. He’s more a ‘give the public what it wants’ sort of bloke. What he quite obviously has never been about is fearless news, attention to detail, and a free press. More than happy to do deals with the liberty-crushers of Beijing, he was the publisher of easily the most obvious forgery of the twentieth century (one which won me a £100 bet) and has had his staff needlessly ruin more lives than any other proprietor in history.

Now the concept of a free press has taken on new meaning, Mr Murdoch’s instinct yet again is that of the greedy monopolist: this is my News Corporation, and ye who would enter must pay for the privilege. Unless he is quietly sitting on the mother and father of all creative ideas, it won’t work – and it doesn’t deserve to: his decision to charge for generic, badly-written content is effectively that of an actor-manager penalising the theatre audience because the movies have arrived.

I’ve been a grudging admirer of Murdoch now for nearly forty years. As a businessman in his heyday, the Digger had the measure of everyone, and more foresight than the rest of Fleet Street put together. But I never saw him as anything other than a twisted cultural nihilist. His natural position is on the side of those with privilege, money and power – unless of course they have a plummier accent than him, in which case he does everything in his power to destroy them. Eighteen months ago I wrote that, for the first time, he was being forced into a situation against his will; I still think this, but now feel in addition that he really doesn’t get the internet.

He’s not alone. The emerging senior blogistocracy and the Chinese Government don’t grasp it either. Much as I deplore the idiocy and lack of commonsense among geeks, nothing of human derivation is ever going to stop them from stopping something they don’t like, staying one step ahead of the authorities – or finding out what they want to know. Whether this be hacking into the US Defcom system, evading Chinese censorship or punching holes in Newscorp firewalls, these folks are invincible.

Ultimately, the only ways to get people to pay for something are either to produce something vastly superior to what’s available for free – or become the only supply source for something that already exists. Murdoch bought his way to the top via the latter monopoly strategy all his career. He has never followed the first route, because quality and creativity are beyond him. This is why Newscorp will never make it on the internet as long as he is alive and at the helm.