As for the looming debate over “lives versus economics”, that too must be left to the media. The government is in intellectual lockdown over an exit strategy. Alone in the free world, it refuses discussion on the grounds – says the acting prime minister, Dominic Raab – that this would undermine its casually authoritarian policy. This cannot be right. With an economy more jeopardised than it has been since the second world war, and with parliament indolent, deep scrutiny of government strategy is essential. It is also psychologically important for the public. Information is reassurance. Debate is empowering, it allays fear with reason. If ministers want to impose extreme curbs on personal freedom, they must show personal trust.
Thomas Jefferson’s famous preference for “newspapers without a government”, if the alternative is government without newspapers, may be stretching a point. It remains strange that so vital a pillar of democracy as an independent and diverse press should be at the mercy of a private market. Over the years, that pillar has been damaged by chicanery, bias, vulgarity and sensation. Yet for all that and in most democracies, the market has more or less delivered. In the digital age, that is no longer guaranteed.
The newspaper industry is experiencing a bizarre phenomenon, a surge in online popularity amid a commercial meltdown. The Guardian, the Times, the Telegraph and the Financial Times have seen soaring online readership; in some cases it has doubled. The craving for reliable, edited, evidence-based news is clearly huge. But it is near impossible to monetise. The bulwark of the press, revenue from advertising and circulation, is plummeting. Newspapers are bearing the costs of good journalism; Google and Facebook are garnering the profits.
Many local newspapers appear unlikely to survive this crisis, while the outlook for printed papers of all sorts is grim. The predators half acknowledge this. The BBC is already subsidising some local newspapers whose market it has damaged through its local newsrooms. Google is offering grants to small- and medium-sized publications – tossing a liferaft to the ships it has torpedoed.
I dislike the idea of state support for an industry whose essence is independent news and debate. Depending on how government acts in the coming months, I still believe most newspapers can keep going. Ministers are already throwing crumbs of NHS advertising in their direction. Last year’s Cairncross report suggested substantial payments from digital platforms to the press organisations that supply them. This might well be part of a wider new order for digital regulation.
For the present, newspapers can only continue to bring peace of mind to those enduring the present agony. But if they start to disappear, they would not be just another victim of this government’s coronavirus policy. If they suffer, democracy suffers. Remember Betjeman: “It’s strange that those we miss the most/ Are those we took for granted.”
© The Guardian