The decline of Murdoch – a good thing for the flow of information?

Rupert Murdoch

Will the decline of the Murdoch empire have an impact on paywalls? Image c/o DonkeyHotey on Flickr

The past couple of weeks have been pretty momentous in the worlds of media and politics.  The revelations about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone (falsely raising the hopes of both family and friends) have marked a new low in the history of the British press. Whilst the antics of the tabloid press should surprise no-one, a widespread sense of shock and disbelief at the depths that they would sink has engulfed the general public.  At the heart of this developing scandal lies News Corporation and Rupert Murdoch.  Already withdrawing their attempt to takeover BSkyB, could we be witnessing the slow, public death of one of the largest and most powerful news organisations in the world?  If so, could this have ramifications for accessibility to online information?

“The current days of the internet will soon be over.”

It is widely acknowledged that Murdoch doesn’t really ‘get’ the internet. Over the course of the past year, News Corporation has made moves to place their newspaper websites behind paywalls.  As The Guardian reported back in 2009, Murdoch envisaged a great change in the way information was accessed online:

Asked whether he envisaged fees at his British papers such as The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World, he replied: “We’re absolutely looking at that.” Taking questions on a conference call with reporters and analysts, he said that moves could begin “within the next 12 months‚” adding: “The current days of the internet will soon be over.”

Such moves were cause for great concern.  Many libraries provide access to newspapers for free and, with declining budgets, it raised the question: should libraries subscribe to online newspaper content for their users?  But it also raised a greater and more important question.  If information is increasingly to be found behind paywalls in a time when libraries are faced with closure, how will we ensure equal access to information for all?  As we know (and as I repeatedly refer back to on this very blog!), 9 million people in this country have never even used the Internet.  The combination of their library closing and a wealth of information being kept behind paywalls would surely entrench the digital divide yet further – ensuring that a substantial proportion of the population never have access to the amount of information that the rest of us take for granted.

The initial impact of the paywall was stark.  Shortly after The Times paywall went up, The Guardian reported a 90% decline in visits.  People had become used to accessing information freely, without recourse to their debit or credit card.  And where one organisation leads, others follow.  The New York Times has suffered a 15% decline in visits since it also launched a paywall.  Whilst not a substantial decline, it is a decline nonetheless and an indication that people will turn away from paywalled content and access their information from elsewhere (which perhaps explains News Corporation’s repeated attacks on the BBC – the largest provider of free news content in the country).

But, with the foundations of the Murdoch media empire seemingly crumbling before our eyes, could this have implications for paywalled newspaper content?  Should Murdoch give up his stake in his remaining newspapers, would a new owner turn their backs on paywalled content?  Or has News Corporation set the Internet on an irreversible path?  I fear it may be the latter, but I remain hopeful that it is the former.


5 thoughts on “The decline of Murdoch – a good thing for the flow of information?

  1. For the media in Britain the decline and fall of Murdoch, whose interests our senior politicians put before those of the electorate, can only be a good thing.

  2. There’s a bit too much victorious crowing from many people at the moment. If you stand back from this, the effects on Murdoch are negative, but marginal. Certainly not a victory. He’s shut down at short notice (him showing that he can do this?) one newspaper that was bringing in an insignificant profit, to probably be replaced with a seven day Sun and, ironically, lower costs (and more profit) for him. And he’s delayed his bid for BSkyB.

    That’s it so far. He hasn’t been arrested, charged with anything, or made to sell his existing stake in BSkyB. His key people are still in their jobs. No new press restrictions have been put into law. And he still has a large chunk of the (voting) public buying and reading his daily, politically slanted, publications. It’s fine for MPs to cheer now and think they’ve “won”; come up to a year before the next general election, and it gets a little more complicated. His attitude at the moment seems to be that “all” this of late is more of an inconvenience and irritant.

  3. It somewhat depends whether you think the problem is Murdoch himself, or a system that allows Murdochs to develop. The widespread revulsion against NewsCorp has forced MPs into taking a stand, or at least making it appear that they take a stand, against Murdoch’s excesses. Where were they when he sacked every single printer and journalist who wouldn’t move to Wapping and abandon their trade union membership?
    So long as we have an economic system that boasts of a ‘free’ press that is only free in the sense that any billionaire is free to set up his own newspaper, there will be many more Murdochs.

  4. Thanks all for the comments. I think it is possible that I have got rather swept away by all the revelations over the past week or two. However, despite all the apparent good news, I have had a niggling thought at the back of my mind that the actions Murdoch has taken so far (closing NOTW) are actually part of a broader strategy he is employing to his advantage. I don’t think this is over and I doubt very much that an old bruiser like Murdoch would be so easily defeated. I would not be surprised to see that name dominate the British media for at least another generation.

    That said, I am still hopeful that someone will take over his newspapers and come up with an alternative strategy for online newspapers. It is unlikely (as Tom says, someone else will come along) but I remain optimistic (for a change).

  5. ‘Rupertgate’ is absolutely about the flow of information, Ian. I fully understand the frustration of John Kirriemuir and the anger of Tom Roper. Often I think that people don’t reaIly appreciate the scale of this scandal and what it means for democracy and,not to exaggerate, freedom in this country. I dread to think what ‘Rupertgate’ will uncover. In conversations I find myself constantly referring to Nixon and Watergate as I can’t think of anything else which has had the same dark forensic evidence and implications for a sovereign nation. It is right to be skeptical about the lack of real reform so far in this matter but at the same time we don’t want to lose the freedom of the press with this oh-so opportunistic government. The reforms which are now required for the press and media need to be well thought out and far-reaching and there must be continuing vigilence and pressure on the Murdoch Empire and others. Personally, I think Rupert Murdoch should be made to stick around and tidy his house but lose his controlling interest in BSkyB as a reminder of how close this country came to ruin. The BBC will also come in for criticism but this particular corporation,unlike Murdoch, is accountable to the public. No, the malaise is monopoly capitalism and the gradual erosion of our values, ethics and morals. Look at how corporate supermarkets are monopolising food production and distribution on a global scale. My hope is that Rupertgate will make people wake up and take a much more active interest in what is going on around them. Libraries and librarians can help them achieve that.

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