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Whether desperate or shrewd, Murdoch is certainly no coward

By Angela Long

Published The Irish Times, August 7, 2009

COULD THE Anti-Christ have saved us – again?

Newspaper people all over the world may well pose this question after Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of News Corporation and grizzled veteran of a dozen to-the-death business battles, finally came clean on charging for online news.

The mogul made his historic announcement in New York yesterday, offsetting the group’s dire financial results – a loss of $3.4 billion (€2.35 billion) in the financial year to June.

It means that all the newspapers and broadcasters within News Corp – media platforms, to use the jargon – will now be looking for credit card details when net surfers land on their shores. The Sun, Times of London, News of the World, the New York Post, papers across Australia, will take the plunge, watched by hundreds of nervous nelly newspaper proprietors elsewhere. For making money out of online publication has been the big question that has had media heads aching, since it became apparent that the print newspaper as we have known and loved it is in terminal decline.

As readers of this column will know, The Irish Times was one of the few papers internationally which persisted in charging for online content, up until a year ago. Now the tide is turning again, as the hope that online advertising would make the profits once accumulated by print ads has evaporated. (The Wall Street Journal, owned by Murdoch since 2007, does charge for most of its content, though readers can pick up a few stories before the encryption curtain comes down.)

Murmurs and rumours about the News Corp move have been in the media-sphere for some time, as has anguished hand-wringing about how newspapers would survive in the online world. Now Murdoch has taken the bull by the horns, and the decision by such a huge organisation will encourage others to do the same. Of course, this move can only work if others do follow suit – a public accustomed to not paying for its online news will easily flit to other sites covering similar territory.

One thing his many detractors cannot pin on Murdoch is cowardice. He rattled the chains of the British media establishment when, as a relatively young man, he transformed The Sun from a dowdy broadsheet into the super soaraway bosom-bedecked tabloid that sold millions. But it was in the mid 1980s that Murdoch really achieved his horns and tail, when he secretly set up the printing plant at Wapping, east London, to print titles without the mighty Fleet Street print unions.

For months afterwards there was near-war on Wapping’s streets, as police and security guards ushered staff into the plant, behind barbed wire, with a furious crowd of picketing ex-printers baying for blood. The bold move – which saved the newspapers concerned – added to Murdoch’s reputation as a ruthless right-winger interested only in profits, and not in the role of newspapers as a means to improve society.

Working for a Murdoch paper in the late ‘80s, it was almost comical to hear the invective at dinner parties and other gatherings. “How could you?” ‘He’s bringing down civilization as we know it, with those comics!” were typical of the comments. The man himself, on occasional visits to the office where I worked, looked less than Mephistophelean, wearing carpet slippers and an apparently hand-knitted old cardigan.

The consideration missing from all this outrage is that newspapers are a business. For those who know and love them, that has always been part of the delicious tension of the press: news should be produced ethically and accurately, but the product also has to sell. Finding that magic territory, where the reader is engaged and impressed by what the journalists provide, is the challenge.

And, gathering and producing news costs money. Murdoch, in his conference call with analysts, said: “Quality journalism is not cheap, and an industry that gives away its content is simply cannibalising its ability to produce good reporting.”

Do people still want good reporting? These days there is a plethora of “news” sources online, from the one you might be reading to the Huffington Post, the leading US aggregator, to the BBC’s vast output, to the ramblings of bloggers who believe they have the real handle on what is going on. But much of all the news content out there is derived from a few professional operations, which have practised quality journalism – finding the stories that people didn’t want published, doing the background, making the calls, getting everything as right as it possibly can be.

There are two major trends in newspaper markets: one, that the news has migrated online; and secondly, that young people just don’t read newspapers any more. They go to their specialized websites for news on celebrities, music, sport – but the habit of flicking through the pages of an intelligent, responsible paper to find out what’s been going on, to keep an eye on the politicians, and to have a laugh, is a 20th century one. Even three years ago, Jeffrey Cole, of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, observed: “If there were a nationwide newspaper strike in the US, almost nobody under the age of 30 would even notice.”

However, we as citizens and humans still need news – vitally. The classic definition of a newspaper is that it “exists in constant tension with the government of the day”. Or, more colloquially, to keep the bastards honest. And then, all human life is there. On your breakfast table.

The immediate reaction (online, of course) to Murdoch’s declaration ranged from an apparent willingness to pay “a tenner a year” for his wares, to splutterings at the very thought of being asked to pay for “Murdoch rubbish”.

Henry Porter, former News Corp journalist, now London editor of Vanity Fair, would criticise many Murdoch outlets (the loathsome Fox News) but he did concede, in 1999: “Murdoch reads the market better than anyone.”

Rupert, respectfully, you might just have done it again. Or you might be a crazy old man who thinks you can roll back the waves of history because you’ve never failed before.

The devil is in the detail.

Angela Long is a freelance journalist and lecturer, and currently completing a dissertation comparing online and paper news.

Viva Espana – far from the madding crowds

ASTURIAS? No, not Austria, not Austerlitz, and not Australia. But plenty of the compatriots could be found in the Basque country, next door to this beautiful and often overlooked region of Spain, in the green and pleasant north.

Travelling east from the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula, the regions are Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and then Pais Vasco, or Euskadi, the Basque country. After that, unless you head south, you are in France. A long-term Hispanophile, I had until this year discounted Asturias as an also-run bit of the magnificence that is Spain, damned by its frequent description as having a climate like Ireland or Wales (no summer, then). Apart from that there were vague mental associations with coal mines and workers’ strikes brutally repressed back in Spain’s early 20th century agonies.

Stretched out on a cushioned banana lounge, baking in July sun, roses waving in the breeze and apples dropping from trees in the verdant garden all around me, with a pet-sound of running water from the stream running through it – Asturias looked a whole lot better from River Cottage. Rather like the Garden of Eden, even.

Contrasting with all this tranquility was the brutal sound of the nearest town’s name – Villaviciosa. However it doesn’t live up to the scary moniker, being a mild low key place, resting comfortably a half-an-hour’s drive from the nearest big city (Gijon). It’s the sort of place where the green-painted panaderia (baker’s) has dozens of glass-fronted cupboards for its wares, and nothing seems to have changed in eons – except the mouth-watering fresh bread, big crusty loaves, sculptured baguettes, and apple tarts that appear daily to an appreciative throng. Vv (as you have to learn to call it, otherwise conversation takes too long) might be light on clubs and the cyberworld, but it is real traditional Spain. Café Vicente is the place to hang out with a beer or coffee and admire the owners’ collection of teapots, nobody hassling, and 3 euro will cover three cuppas.

But away from our impossibly sweet holiday cottage and the leisurely pace of Vv, Asturias was waiting to delight. This region, covering 10,565 sq km, hosts both some of the best beaches and the most stunning mountains in Spain. In between there is lush hilly country. And in the centre, the sacred cradle of modern Spanish civilization at Covadonga, a cathedral and shrine hewn out of the rock. Glimpsing this through dappled vistas of chestnut, birch and oak, on the curvy road seems like a hallucination – what would a vast cathedral, just on its own, being doing out here? But there it sits indeed, commemorating the first significant battle of the Reconquest, when the Muslim forces who had taken over nearly all of Spain suffered their first defeat in 722. It took the doughty Asturians to stand up to the successful invaders, and kick-start the movement that ended with the triumph of the forces of Isabella and Ferdinand 700 years later.

Those same doughty Asturians have so far also successfully held at bay the modern invaders of Spain, hordes of tourists from Britain, Germany, and most places you can think of, including Australia. As a holiday destination, this region is still mostly for the Spaniards themselves. On a beach like Playa Nora (comfortable rocks to lean against, burning sand, good swimming) or Playa de Rodiles (fabulous facilities but a queer fog lurking, sitting like a big Cheshire cat just above the skyline), the voices around are Spanish. Another feature of the Asturian beaches, with their golden sand, curving coves, and turquoise sea, is the frequent ‘bufones’, or blowholes, where the lively Cantabrian Sea gets up to tricks for the entertainment of visitors.

So if you are looking for the traditional sun, sex and Sangria Spanish holiday in company with thousands of boiled-lobsters Brits, Irish and Germans, this, mercifully, is not the place.

A couple of hours away are the small cities of  Santander and San Sebastian (both with population around 183,000). Santander is the capital of Cantabria, while San Seb is the principal city of the Basque province of Guipuzcoa. The latter is also known as Donostia, its Basque name, so don’t be confused if signs or maps don’t appear to refer to San Sebastian. Both have wonderful seafront promenades and a sense of classy, long-established holiday clientele. Their traditional appeal for Spanish summer holidays persists, but their pleasant climate and great nightlife throws out a wider net. At the A Fuego Negro bar in San Sebastian there were plenty of English, Irish and Australian voices, keeping the party going till 4 or 5 am, fuelled by their delicious and original tapas and funky décor.

At the end of our holiday we took the train into France and spent a couple of nights in famous holiday resort Biarritz. It is a cute town, especially if you are a surfer, but more upmarket than many beach-bum destinations. And it’s pricier and more pretentious – you’ll pay about double Spanish prices for food and drinks.

In Spain, we mixed hotels with a week in our adorable holiday cottage. For that week, three of us got accommodation and several meals (home-cooked) for 120 euro each. That was probably a bargain, and hotels in San Sebastian and Santander, in the peak holiday season for the Spaniards, were around that a NIGHT. In San Seb/Donostia we stayed in university accommodation, which was clean, pleasant, just outside the centre of town – but no TV in rooms, although there was WiFi and we had the laptop for entertainment needs. Coming from Australia, you might not want to lug the computer. And also in this part of the world is Bilbao, with its famous Guggenheim art gallery, designed with his shirt off by Frank Gehry.

One last tip for Asturias: you’d better come equipped with a cider thirst. Because of the lush greenery (it rains from November to March, one of our hosts warned us) this is a premier milk and fruit region, and the cider is everywhere, poured in the traditional manner from a great height into a round glass. As even the expert waiters seem to spill a fair bit, this is not recommended for travellers who are either particularly thirsty or impoverished!

But if you are contemplating Spain in the summer, eschew the northern Europeans’ magnet destinations and try the green north. The weather is generally good in June, July and August, with, our hosts said, the best weather in September when temperatures average in the high teens to mid twenties Celsius, but without the changeability of July.

So, salud! Enjoy the Costa Verde.

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