We do not deserve a 'free' press
By Alan Russell
Yesterday while I was having lunch at my desk I was flicking through the websites for the BBC and The Telegraph. On The Telegraph website I had a warning come up saying that I had reached my limit of free views of stories and if I wanted to continue to read any more I would have to become a subscriber.
For my birthday earlier this year my wife gave me a book by Bob Woodward titled ‘The Last of the President’s Men’. For those of you who do not remember Bob Woodward (26th March 1943) was one of two journalists, the other being Carl Bernstein (14th February 1944) who through their patience, determination and journalistic zeal uncovered the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Nixon on 9th August 1974. They both worked for the Washington Post where Woodward still has an editorial role.
The book is based on an arranged meeting between Bob Woodward and Alexander P. Butterfield who was appointed by Bob Haldeman to be a personal aide to the President. That meant he sat in an office next to the famous Oval Office, had daily contact with the President, his visitors and was fully aware of the installation of a very sophisticated voice activated recording system not only in the Oval Office but in other parts of the White House
The bulk of the exposure of the scandal that led to the one and only resignation from the most powerful political office in the world, so far to July 2016, was done by hardcopy journalists. They worked in an era when if people wanted news, apart from on the TV, they had to buy newspapers. There was no 24 hour digital access online for free. The only free news sources then were from the television.
The exploits of Woodward and Bernstein were documented in the film ‘All the President’s Men’ starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. Now you can appreciate where the title of my current read is derived from? I have seen this movie and cannot remember if it was in colour or black and white; that is how detailed and gritty a manner in which the story was presented.
More recently in America a team of journalists from the Boston Globe lead by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson uncovered the child sex abuse scandal that permeated the Catholic church there not only in terms of betraying the trust of children but also in the subsequent attempts at cover up by the church. From one of the extracts I have seen on TV one of the questions raised by the newspaper back in 2002 when the story broke was about budgets and how expensive this type of investigative journalism was. This was 28 years following President Nixon’s resignation and well into thee digital age when hardcopy newspapers were seeing their revenues drop as readers turned to digital news outlets.
In 2008 in Britain The Telegraph made requests for information on MP’s expenses under The Freedom of Information Act (2008) with a promise that they would be available by July 2009. Before the July deadline that very information was leaked to the newspaper and then released in daily doses to the public from May 2009 0nwards. These revelations resulted in criminal proceedings, resignations and suspensions from the House of Lords. Strangely, the expenses of one Tony Blair were shredded ‘by mistake’ when they became the subject of legal proceedings to force disclosure.
All of these exposures by the fourth estate that we need to keep our society healthy and democratic take time and money to fund if we are to maintain this watchful eye on those who are in charge of our society. That money cannot be generated from us as readers and beneficiaries of this type of work if we, as consumers of news, keep on insisting that we access ‘free’ online news. The funding has to come from somewhere. Media outlets raise money by selling advertising space but that should not be the only source of revenue. Football teams sell advertising space and at the same time charge fans who want to watch games or charge media outlets who broadcast those games. In the same way we should not resent having to pay newspapers and magazines for the work they do.
We do not deserve a free press.