Murdoch vs Al Jazeera: Paywalls vs Free to All

We admirers of the Times are wrestling with whether to give in to Rupert Murdoch’s new pay wall that now deprives us of free web access or refuse to sign up and sign in. Do we strike a blow for Rupert’s profits and more money ploughed into field journalism or resist and try and show other newspaper proprietors that curbing free access to websites is a blunder that will take the Times and others out of the global conversation?

 In any event, one other media organisation has taken a radical step in the other direction.  At its annual conference held recently in Doha, Qatar, Al Jazeera’s Director-General Wadah Khanfar announced that all of its content- video, blogs, text- can now be used for free by any newspaper or broadcaster or anyone for that matter.

In principle, the AJ bequeath means that any paper or television channel or network anywhere struggling to find money to pay for Reuters or AP or AFP agency material could simply reversion AJ reports, visuals, and blogs for publication on their websites or presumably in their papers.  All Khanfar asks for in this unprecedented move is attribution – identifying the material as provided by Al Jazeera.

And what a journalistic feast for papers and media. AJ and AJE boast that they have 65 bureaus around the world and reporters on the ground all through Asia, Africa, and Latin America as well as throughout its stronghold, the Middle East. 

I can vouch for the astonishing global output of AJE.  During my 4 months working in Washington for AJE, I can’t recall a daily editorial meeting linking Doha/KL, London, and Washington where a story of any significance around the world wasn’t going to be covered on the ground by an AJE news team. I would record the datelines and marvel at how this one news organisation had the resources to do this, especially at a time when most newspapers and television networks were closing bureaus and slashing dramatically their coverage budgets. The answer is straightforward: the Emir of Qatar bankrolls Al Jazeera. See this Economist piece

 But will newspapers and broadcasters reject this unprecedented offer on the grounds that Al Jazeera can’t be trusted as an unbiased source of news and information? Leading media critics and public policy analysts such as the hard-headed American writer Robert D. Kaplan rave about its breadth of coverage – “visually stunning, deeply reported descriptions of developments in dozens upon dozens of countries simultaneously,’ even as they accept that AJE is more pro-Palestinian than other channels.