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Passing through my third-life crisis peacefully in South London, finding out new stuff, and then getting cross and excited about it.

Friday, 4 December 2009

50 for 10 - support the Guardian

This is a transcript* of my report from Episode 12 of the Pod Delusion, itself based on a very early blog entry of mine. I’m very proud, as James O’Malley says in his introduction to the piece, to be “almost literally, personally kicking Richard Desmond in the face".

On Monday 30 November, The Guardian ran a story covering a speech given by its own journalist, Nick Davies. In it Davies attacked the Press Complaints Commission for being, in his words, “structurally corrupt”. He claimed that "the logic of commercialism has taken over from the logic of journalism" because various sensational stories were recycled whether they were true or not, and if you talk to journalists, again his words, them saying they believe in a free press is “in current circumstances…like a rapist saying he believes in free love”.

This follows on from stories run in the Guardian written by Davies earlier in the year looking at The News of the World’s investigative techniques, where they had allegedly obtaining illegal recordings of various celebrities through phone hacking. Now Davies claims probably warrant an episode of the Pod Delusion of their own – but if you step back for a second, there’s something lovely about the fact that, at a time when the rest of the newspaper industry is necessarily worried about where its next profits are coming from, the Guardian is giving prominence to a campaign for tighter regulation. It’s analagous to turkeys voting for Christmas or, heaven forbid, homeopaths demanding proof of efficacy before Boots stock their products.

I use the phrase ‘rest of the newspaper industry’ for obvious reasons, because the evidence of the impact of the recession and changing consumer behaviour is there to see in other newspapers. The Evening Standard has just gone free, The Independent is constantly on the verge of being sold just to keep it in business, and if you read the Guardian’s own charging for content section, you’ll see daily updates on Rupert Murdoch’s proposal to do exactly that.

But there’s also evidence that the Guardian has been facing exactly the same troubles as the rest of the industry. Many of you will know that the paper has indicated a round of redundancies are likely, in July the paper’s parent body the Guardian Media Group announced a £90m loss and announced that such trends could only been sustained until 2011, at which point the organisation would have to radically restructure.

And tracking its cover price shows that while there was no rise between 2004 and 2006, it’s gone up from 70p in 2006 to £1 in 2009 with two 10p rises this year alone.

Now if you talk to people of a liberal bias (and I do) and ask them if they are worried about the state of the Guardian, they will often say one of two things.

The first one is “Don’t worry, it’ll survive.” This is well-founded, because the Guardian and its sister papers are unique in being owned by the Scott Trust. It was set up to guarantee the independence and liberal tone of the paper in perpetuity.

The second thing they say is: “Perhaps the paper is under threat, but that doesn’t really affect me, because I get all of my news online”. Of course, everyone under the age of about 35 does this, through Google searches, Google news alerts, Google reader and various other products sponsored by Google (which is why Rupert Murdoch is so upset with them).

The Guardian seems doubly damned. Not only does it have a core readership which is naturally attracted to new technologies which promote freedom of expression and open communication, but its constitution (while providing editorial protection for the Guardian from, say, a Russian oligarch with his own agenda) produces complacency about the paper’s future in that core readership.

Because I am a massive geek, this kind of attitude reminds me of Douglas Adams and Australia. Adams lo0vced the country but he’d only visited once when he wrote about it, and so his affection was necessarily one of long distance. It was a remote reassurance of Australia’s continued presence somewhere on the other side of the world, a place he could return any time he liked. Yet, when he discussed the country with its ex-pats, Adams found himself unsettled when they would smile wryly at him and say “Ah, well, it’s the last place left now, isn’t it?”.

If you listen to the Pod Delusion, the chances are you are a lover of science and evidence-based policy; that you promote freedom of expression and information, and that there are several words ending in –al that you associate yourself with. You are liberal, rational, you are skeptical. In short, there’s a word for you – you are probably a Guardianista, and this short piece is my wry smile to you, to remind you that the Guardian is probably the last place left.

It’s certainly the last place left that you’ll get a major promotion of tighter regulation of the press. It’s also the last place left (or the last major place left) that you’ll get, for example, in depth coverage of David Nutt’s sacking, live streaming of parliamentary hearings on homeopathy, very strong science coverage, the home of the atheist bus campaign, widespread acceptance of climate change and the 10 for 10 campaign, A Reader’s Editor, Comment is free, and columnists as wide ranging as Charlie Brooker, Ariane Sherine, Ben Goldacre and George Monbiot.

While we might be at the dawn of a brave new era in the media industry driven by the internet, right now bloggers and amateur journalists are not sufficient to protect freedom of expression in a healthy democracy. The clout and profile of large media institutions are still necessary.

Witness in October the super-injunction placed on the Guardian by Carter-Ruck representing the energy company Trafigura. It may have been the explosion in the blogosphere and thousands of tweets that eventually led to the injunction being lifted, but it was the heavy-pockets of the Guardian paying for their lawyers that fought the case in the first place and allowed the story to come to light.

For Guardianistas and the things that they value, it is not enough that the paper’s constitution virtually guarantees its survival. It needs to be financially healthy in order to do the things that we value it for.

So, I propose a campaign.

The Guardian media group says it can only sustain current losses until 2011. So in 2010, if you see yourself as being within the Guardian’s core readership, someone who upholds liberal and rational values, pledge to buy 50 more copies of the Guardian or the Observer than you normally would. If you buy the paper every day, bully for you! Buy 50 more copies, 1 per week, and give them away. If you don’t buy them at the moment, because you get your news online, well bully for you too! But you should buy 50 copies as well, 1 per week, in order to demonstrate that the paper still holds value for you.

It’s called the 50 for 10 campaign, cheekily named after the 10 for 10 campaign aimed at reducing carbon footprints which was launched in the Guardian earlier this year. There’s a facebook group in which you can register your support, but also suggest other ways in which people can financially support the paper, should they be so inclined.

This is only a temporary measure – the Guardian will have to adapt to whatever changes there are in the newspaper industry if it wants to remain financially healthy in the long term.

But in the meantime? We should do what we can to preserve what we’ve got, because, like Douglas Adams with Australia, we would certainly miss it, if it were gone.

*NB There's some minor amendments for tone, clarity and accuracy, and I've added links. To the Guardian, where possible.

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