Is it paranoid to think that everyone is out to do you down, when in fact everyone is trying to secure your extinction? Of course not, and the newspaper industry must be protected from the charge of paranoia, just as in previous times, when it ruled the media roost, it needed to be protected from a charge of arrogance.  The truth is that the world has been unkind to newspaper men since the days of William Randolph Hearst and Alfred, Lord Northcliffe.  Creating commercial empires from selling advertising and exhibiting a callow disregard for truth and accuracy when it got in the way of a good story was, from the 1890s to the 1930s, itself a good story.  And newspaper owners had to be audacious rogues to get away with it.

History does this.  Eighteenth century libertarians in England looked back at a world of idealized Anglo-Saxon common lands and village councils, and deplored enclosures and loss of liberty.  Now we look back at the enclosed parkland estates as the real world that we have lost.  In the same way, newspaper owners who have long lost touch with the ill-written bastardized press releases used in Britain’s regional press to divide columns of advertising, and who have spent a decade firing the ignoble hacks who produced this nutrition-free copy in order to maximize margins, now appear on high horse to defend their high-value “content” from web users when those Anglo-Saxon peasants have the cheek (or innocence) to want to link similar references together in the collaborative world of the web.  Only this week did the Intellectual Property Director of NewsInternational liken linking to shoplifting (Guardian letters, 25 January 2009) and protest that ” The public is well-served by companies like News that invest in creativity”.

And then, still worse, the CEO of Trinity Mirror uses last week’s Oxford Media Convention to lambast local government-run news sheets as “mini-Pravdas” which provide a further source of unfair competition for her declining news output.  Here indeed is an industry first: whoever heard of British local government, when mentioned in the pages of the regional press, ever getting anything right  ?  But here, like the BBC, they now appear to be a rival.  Perhaps this is because they generally cannot afford to rewrite the press releases, and are therefore compelled to pass them on accurately?  Or have they taken to employing the wordsmiths fired by the private sector?  The real issue here, as with the newspapers of Mr Murdoch, may be about political influence, but that somehow does not seem to be a cause for concern.

When we get to write the history of these headless days in the decline and fall of the Press, we will wonder at the lack of strategic appreciation.  It is not just that the co-operative web community environment is wholly alien to people who sell a bundle of folded paper sheets to each of many isolated, individual citizens.  It is the lack of thinking around scale and impact which is so surprising.  This week produced a classic example.  The UK start-up Rightmove, founded by real property resellers and now a quoted company, dominates the UK market.  In 2007, Mr Murdoch came in with a rush and bought smaller and more specialized services like Globrix and Propertyfinder.  Last year News International sold off these interests, and this year DMGT bought Globrix, and put it into its Digital Property Group with Findahome, Findaproperty and PrimeLocation.  This gives DMGT a large but second ranked portfolio of services in a market where its ability to command the attention of real estate agents is much diminished.  The other News Corp property, PropertyFinder, has gone to Zoopla, the alternative community trade model which cuts out, or at least cuts down, the agent middleman.  Strategically, neither DMGT or News feels like an expensive competitive auction for Rightmove: equally, neither could face up to a business model that meant cutting the throats of their erstwhile advertisers, the real estate agents.  Result: strategic paralysis.  Reasons for hope: DMGT is no longer dependent on selling newsprint for over 50% of its revenues and profits.  And neither is Hearst.  What would William Randolph and Lord Alfred have made of that?

In 1988 , after much selling effort , we received a contract from the government departments involved ( the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationary Office and the Department of Trade and Industry – neither of whom exist now ) to create model terms and conditions through which the public sector could release to the private sector in the UK all government information which was neither personal to named individual citizens or retained for security reasons.  We produced a model contract, founded a company called Information Agents Ltd to do the trades, and predicted in our final report that the two departments would face a stiff, at times impossible, battle with the rest of government to implement this.  The model contract was agreed, the agency company contracted – and almost no trades took place.

Why?  We were working on the basis that the information economy becoming increasingly important in the US,  founded on the confluence of the Paperwork Reduction Act and the Freedom of Information Act, and could be recreated in UK plc, helping to give British companies a global marketplace in information products and services in English established on the platform of a successful domestic industry resulting from public-private partnership.

And now, 22 years later and to a blaze of media triumphalism, it is here.  Following the intervention of Sir Tim Berners-Lee , and the Prime Minister saying ” Let’s Do It !”, has arrived as the agency for access and licensing.  Those who want the full story should go to the Guardian’s Charles Arthur, and then remember the long campaign fought by that newspaper in support of this cause.  I am hugely happy that this has happened, and  hope that the private sector, and all of the “accidental” publishers  flourishing on the web,  will grab this opportunity with both hands and use the data now available creatively to demonstrate what can be done.

And I am very worried.  In the intervening period I served for five years on the Advisory Panel on Public Sector Information.  I know that the government site is still only carrying a thin slice of what is available for re-use.  I know too that the last 22 years have been marked by two things: the extreme reluctance of the UK Treasury and so-called trading funds to abandon or downscale the idea of earning fees and royalties to defray the cost of collection, updating and then selling data that they have a statutory duty to collect at the taxpayer’s expense; and the whole psychology of power retention and the implicit government servant vow of omerta that surrounds the reluctance of government to divulge anything but the most basic of information for fear that it could be used against the giver.

So will the Berners Lee initiative work?  We had better hope so, since our information economy in the UK badly needs it to do so.  But Sir Tim and his colleagues need to go on a Billy Graham-style conversion campaign to re-educate government in the collaborative nature of the Web.  And win over those bastions of protected trading rights, the Meteorological Office, the Ordnance Survey, and, neither government fish nor private sector fowl, Royal Charter operations like the Environment Agency or the BBC. The resistance already have a hefty victory over postcodes( ) And then they tackle an even more difficult issue: local government.

There is certainly no scope for self-satisfaction in all of this.  Sir Tim has now made the issue real to all players, something which has taken 22 years to achieve.  It would be dreadful if the political element in all of this became a casualty of the forthcoming UK General Election.  It needs all party support.  It would be pointless to spend the next 22 years expanding the base of available content so slowly that the benefits identified by the changes were imperceptible in their impact.  And above all, we need to be aware of how easy it could be for opponents to win back some of the ground that they have lost.  A report in the Observer, the Guardian’s sister paper, indicates search analytics in the US being used to ” de-anonymize” anonymized personal data, presumably by finding patterns of activity which equate to prior behaviour.  Thank goodness few UK civil servants read the Observer: the idea that names and addresses might be re-attached to medical records, for example, would shut down epidemiological research overnight in our risk-averse culture.

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