A Murdoch led consortium. Get ready for a rent seeking campaign the likes of which the world has never seen. Rupert Murdoch is talking with some of the biggest publishers in the United States about forming a consortium that would charge for online news content. In the last couple of weeks News Corp executives have met with their peers at the New York Times Co., Washington Post Co., Hearst Corp. and Tribune Co., publisher of the Los Angeles Times.

Some sketchy details of the Murdoch plan were disclosed in Friday’s LA Times: “Chief Digital Officer Jonathan Miller has positioned News Corp. as a logical leader in the effort to start collecting fees from online readers,” said the story, “because of its success with the Wall Street Journal Online, which boasts more than 1 million paying subscribers.”

It was in the same paper the next day that columnist Tim Rutten blew the whistle on what the the major purpose of the proposed consortium would be.

“… the Australian-born media magnate understands that what’s required for serious — which is to say expensive-to-produce — journalism to survive is that all the quality English-language papers and news sites agree to charge for Web access and then mercilessly sue anyone who makes more than fair use of their work without paying a fee. For such a scheme to work, the papers’ owners need to agree on when to act and what to charge.”

Rutten explained that American papers had combined revenues of $34.7 billion from the advertising in their print editions last year and just $3.1 billion in advertising from their online sites, despite the fact that, on average, 67.3 million people visited them each month.

Unless that imbalance is reduced, all but a few quality papers will disappear. Which brought him to the nub of the likely lobbying proposal:

For its part, Congress needs to move quickly to grant the newspaper industry at least a temporary exemption from antitrust and price-fixing laws so that publishers and proprietors can, in essence, collude for survival. The question that naturally arises is why the government should have any interest in supporting newspapers — unhealthy or otherwise. In fact, U.S. authorities have used their regulatory powers to support a free press — whose foundations were and remain newspapers — since the Colonial era. As deputy postmasters general of British America, for example, Benjamin Franklin and William Hunter allowed newspaper subscribers to receive their copies through the mails free of postage.

They permitted single copies of any paper to be sent free from one printer to another. That was crucial to the free flow of information because it allowed the foreign and financial news that aggregated in the port cities to pass uninhibited to the printer/publishers of inland papers, while events in the hinterland were transmitted back to the major cities.

When the nation’s first Postal Act was passed in 1792, it not only continued Franklin’s and Hunter’s policy of free transmission of papers between printers but set a heavily subsidized postal rate of a single cent on copies mailed to subscribers. In 1851, Congress granted free postage to weekly papers mailed within their counties of origin and later extended the subsidy to dailies.

More important, if Congress acts as it should, it will do so not on behalf of newspapers but for their readers. The press, after all, does not assert 1st Amendment protections on its own behalf but as the custodian of such protections on behalf of the American people. We ought not lose sight of the fact that the 1st Amendment links the rights to religion, free speech, a free press and peaceable assembly for the redress of grievance for a reason. The framers wisely judged that a healthy democratic government required people informed by a free press, acting according to the dictates of their own consciences, speaking their minds without inhibition in the free associations of their choosing.

There is a kind of spiritual symbiosis in the complementary exercise of these most fundamental rights. If the unlooked-for consequences of technical innovation somehow threatened religious freedom — which is to say, liberty of conscience — or inhibited free speech or intimidated people from assembling, there’s no doubt Congress would act expeditiously. So it now should on behalf of a free press.

Newspaper proprietors with as serious an interest in their readers’ interest as their own bottom lines ought to follow Murdoch’s unlikely lead into a consortium of pay-to-view news websites or adopt one of the other proposed models as quickly as practical. Congress should enact the legislation required to allow them to act and price collectively, which has to be done if any of these schemes are to work.

Unless our lawmakers empower the newspaper industry to act on its readers’ behalf, it’s only a matter of time until there are too few serious sources of quality — or “premium” — journalism to guarantee the reality of the free press on which all the 1st Amendment’s indispensable liberties depend.

A beautiful bit of spinning. You’ve just got to love the Team Rudd spinners. Choosing the Garden Island Naval Base as the location for the joint meeting between the Australian and New Zealand Cabinets was an inspired choice. Here was one of the dullest political meetings of the year getting coverage because the backdrop was irresistible for the television cameras. Wonderful symbolism of the ANZAC tradition.

Giving the Nationals a chance. Forget about dumping Malcolm Turnbull. The leadership change a serious Opposition would be making is to give the top National Party job to Barnaby Joyce. Senator Joyce has the rat bag flair which might, just might, be enough to exempt his lot from the electoral disaster which is looming for the Coalition. He showed at the Party’s national conference at the weekend that he realises that the key to survival for the Nationals is to get back to the bush as quickly as possible having got as far away from the Liberal Party as possible.

Demonising Jews. The Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has a strange notion of freedom of the press. He has refused to be critical of the left leaning Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet which has published a story accusing Israel of killing Palestinians to plunder their organs. “No one can demand that the Swedish government violates its own constitution. Freedom of speech is an indispensable part of Swedish society,” Fredrik Reinfeldt was quoted as telling the Swedish news agency TT on Saturday. Now freedom of speech might be just as PM Reinfeldt described but surely a blast of criticism expressing disbelief that the Israeli Defence Forces were in the body parts stealing business would not have gone astray. The Jerusalem Post reports relations between Israel and Sweden are a little strained at the moment and no wonder.

Peter Fray

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