Free news is now a political issue. Gordon Brown, the British prime minister who, in an uphill fight to stay in 10 Downing Street, is searching for any issue that might catch electoral fire, is opposing Rupert Murdoch’s plan
to put up a paywall around the websites of his British newspapers.
There are obvious political virtues in this position.
The electorate surely prefers free to paid, and it surely prefers the Internet to newspapers. In many respects it’s a breakthrough position, one which no politician has yet quite exploited or understood. The Internet, and easy and free access to it, is probably as vital to people as health care and getting the trains to run on time.
What’s more, Rupert Murdoch is an ideal bad guy. Curiously, no politician in the UK or US has ever been truly able to capitalize on how unsympathetic Murdoch is. He’s protected himself by owning the media that would have to help draw that portrait. But now, erecting his wall, he’s not only forcibly putting himself in the way of people’s right to the media, but making himself the number one enemy of the newest mass media.
Brown and Murdoch are old friends, Scotsmen who admire each other’s bluntness and lack of frills. But Murdoch, yielding to his son James, his chief honcho in Britain, is now supporting the Conservative Party candidate, David Cameron. In a sweet payback, Brown, taking on the free content issue, is impertinently striking at the very cause that most defines Murdoch. It’s a cause that depend on the media establishment being cowed or awed by Murdoch’s aggression and certainty—for his wall to be effective, he needs everybody else behind it. Brown, representing the consumer, is delivering a fine tweaking to his old friend, if not rude comeuppance. Now it’s not just the longhairs of the Internet laughing at Murdoch, but the bedrock of the political establishment.
It puts Brown’s opponent, David Cameron, in an awkward position. He will now surely be asked about his position on new paywalls. He can either impolitely reject his semi-patron’s cause or he can reject the certain will of a new generation.
Anyway, the Internet and free information move toward being a right as well as a political hot button. That’s an issue we can have some fun with. As for Murdoch, he’s a man whose life and career have been about backing political winners. His precipitous decision to back John McCain over Barack Obama in the presidential election still pains him. In Britain he’s backed the sure winner, David Cameron, who, ever since the Murdoch endorsement, has been on a steady decline in the polls. And now there’s the great paywall referendum.
Murdoch’s paywalls go up this June—and shortly we’ll start to get the numbers.