I have three British friends who write literate and stylish columns that will soon go behind Rupert Murdoch’s paywall at the Times and Sunday Times of London. For a little while longer, you can see the newly designed Times site and read Rod Liddle, AA Gill, and Dominic Lawson for free (the site now requires registration — which means you’ll be spammed about subscribing to the Times forever more), but soon this will end.

Tim Kevan, the author of the Times’ enormously popular legal blog, BabyBarista, recently announced he was leaving his Murdoch home (where he’s gotten two book deals from his blog) and setting up his own site because he doesn’t want to be in the “exclusive preserve of a limited few subscribers”. In other words, he wants an audience.

But my friends Liddle, Gill, and Lawson, all presumably being paid a premium by Murdoch (at least, I hope they are), have agreed to keep their prose behind his paywall to tempt and seduce potential online Times subscribers into eagerly paying the new fee.

Like me, Liddle, Gill, and Lawson write a sort of autodidact’s column, a job that pays well without ever having to prove its value. (I’ve said this before: Liddle could be the one columnist writing in English who, I might admit, does this job better than me.) Actually, our very value is probably that people have never thought about having to pay for us — that, appearing reliably in this or that periodical, we seem free. We come along with the package. An uninvited guest — sometimes drunk, sometimes amusing (or both). An interjection. Often quite a gratuitous seeming one.

Our lack of fundamental usefulness is perhaps even more pronounced on the internet. We go on too long (even in a shortened form such as this); we clear our throats; we wander far from the point (while the point is paramount on the internet, the digression is much more tantalising to us); we speak not necessarily to inform, instruct, or to impart a message, but, more so, because we like the sound of our own voice. We are casual entertainers, unaligned and promiscuous opinionists, and obsessive articulators. All of this is at great odds with the internet’s formulaic, abbreviated, partisan orientation — and careless prose.

I am afraid that if there were any remaining doubts about what we are worth, Murdoch’s paywall is going to make it clear that we have no economic reason for being at all (probably never have had). People may well pay for many different kinds of information (even on the internet), but, I wager, given the choice, they surely won’t pay for writing for its own sake.

It is yet another sign of his abject inability to understand this new medium that Murdoch — in one of the screwball turnarounds of the age — has promoted wit and style to an important place in his internet strategy.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff’s articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at [email protected] You can also follow him on Twitter: www.twitter.com/NewserColumns.

Peter Fray

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