There's been a lot of talk about press freedom of late, what with the rich and powerful taking out super-injuctions and attempts by special interest groups such as the GMC to exempt themselves from press scrutiny.
The common theme here is, of course, that as fewer people read newspapers and newspaper company revenues decline the power of news organisations to hold even the minor celebrities within their own ranks to account, let alone to talk truth to power, evaporates.
Newspapers had the power to unearth and reveal secrets because they wielded vast political and economic influence and could afford the best lawyers. Celebrities, politicians, plutocrats and even doctors increasingly think it a safe enough bet that actually they now have the best lawyers, and even if the Sun won it for the Tories in 1992 no-one even in Wapping seriously pretends it will ever carry such political weight again. Twenty years later the Telegraph spent the better part of a year spinning out the revelation that practically every member of the lower house had systematically stolen from the public purse and the political fall-out was inconsequential - the barest handful of sacrificial imprisonments and the rest allowed to continue on their way. Insofar as serious investigative political journalism is still attempted outside the pages of Private Eye and - utterly bizarrely - Rolling Stone its key practitioners are currently being tortured by the US military or going through the slow process of being quietly shipped off to the same fate by obedient European governments.
The freedom of the press is important. Holding politicians, businesses and other powerful interests accountable matters (even if the bedroom antics of X-factor quarter-finalists do not). Journalists and the newspapers they write for are very clear on this point. And so most of those newspapers should close down immediately.
There is still a large market for printed news in the UK. Aggregated figures have their limitations but glancing at the latest (March 2011) ABCs across the various categories of newspaper shows that both the quality dailies and the quality Sundays sold about 2m copies a day while the comics are still shifting about 5m. Since that circulation is split across rather more than a dozen titles the audience (and therefore circulation and ad revenues) for most of those papers is too small to make them a commercial success.
The Sun, News of the World and the two Mails are still licenses to print money but the Independent has always run at a loss; the i is a very new and presumably still loss-making experiment; the Guardian is (sort of) a charity funded out of unrelated businesses also owned by its trust; the Telegraph (update: this simply isn't true of the Telegraph, a misapprehension on my part, thanks for corrections in the comments), Times and Standard are run at a loss by billionaires for reasons of their own; and the two Sport titles went recently into administration, with the Sunday edition pegged to re-emerge some time in May.
It should come as no real surprise that the pared-back and cursory journalistic scrutiny available to an industry increasingly concerned with appeasing its investors no longer terrifies politicians, oligarchs, philandering sportsmen or indeed anyone with with access to moderately expensive lawyers. Newsrooms shrink, phone-hacking scandals breed caution, expensive legal battles with the litigious rich breed greater caution still. Very few of our newspapers any longer have the money or therefore the ability to do the job of holding power to account. And by stubbornly clinging on to life they dilute the shrinking pool of newspaper readers to the point that no paper can afford to do the job of gathering the news.
So here's what should happen. Tomorrow. It has been obvious since Murdoch predicted it a decade ago that the last three papers standing will be the Guardian/Observer, the two Mails and the Sun/NotW. The rest should close their doors immediately, if necessary (ie where still profitable) reimbursed for doing so by the three remaining publishers. The Financial Times gets a free pass for not really being a general interest daily newspaper but a B2B. This would leave the way clear for the three remaining titles to carve up the 7m or so copy sales and attendant readership. With the circulation and ad revenues from such a pool of readers they could once more afford to pay journalists and lawyers. They could once more afford to gather news; carry out investigative journalism; hold power to account; hire the very best lawyers to defend them aggressively in court; and restore the value of journalism, and of newspapers, by doing those things that journalism and printed newspapers are for. It is short-sighted, socially irresponsible selfishness for anyone else who runs a national newspaper in this country to keep doing so. Shut them down.
(Photo by DRB62 on Flickr)