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Murdochs in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones

“I believe that if there is an imbalance between the providers of creativity and those who exploit it, then we should care about it, and do something about it. Do not be misled by claims of high principle in this debate. When someone tells you content wants to be free, what you should hear is ‘I want your content for free’ – and that is not the same thing at all. We must rediscover something that should be very obvious: the importance of placing a proper value on creative endeavour.”

Fine, sonorous words from James Murdoch, uttered at a speech at UCL last week. Murdoch used the occasion to broaden his attack on the public sector from the BBC to, rather extraordinarily, the British Library. Why? Because the British Library is planning to digitise newspaper collections, among them the News International-owned Times’ – and then charge a fee for them. Superficially, Murdoch has a point. As of right, the British Library receives a copy of every publication free of charge. It seems a bit rich that it should be allowed to profit from the private sector by charging a fee to online users.

Except, of course, that our champion of “creative endeavour” is here perpetrating a wilful misunderstanding of the facts in order to advance his cause. It transpires that what the British Library is in reality doing is charging for out-of-copyright material. Since, on any given day, there is little demand for this archive stuff, digitisation becomes a relatively expensive process – justifying an online fee. The Library will not be charging for in-copyright material, except by prior agreement.

So, what exactly is Murdoch Jnr up to here? Clearly preparing the ground as vociferously as possible for News International’s imminent retreat into paywall purdah. He should not be too cavalier with his arguments, however. NI is, itself, a glasshouse at which brickbats may be hurled. Take the Sky News website for instance. A fine example of free access to content piggybacked from subscription-driven enterprise if ever there was one.

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