Paywall vigilantes pursue a selfish course, not a moral one

Reaction to Sunday Times article underlines the problem with habitual screenshotters

Topped by the sight of Boris Johnson valiantly greeting a Chinese dragon outside Number 10, The Sunday Times pulled no punches in its long read on Britain's chaotic coronavirus response. But did it pull in any subscribers? Some extra print sales? Perhaps not as many as it should have done.

After the article, published behind The Sunday Times’s hard paywall, was slathered over on social media from Saturday night, a critical mass of Twitter users did more than merely like, tweet or retweet it. Some screenshotted all the best bits for the benefit of non-subscribers. Others linked to the corner of the internet where the entire 5,000 words had been sprung from behind the paywall.

The damning piece by Jonathan Calvert, George Arbuthnott and Jonathan Leake had fallen into a popular category: journalism too important not to share, yet not important enough to pay for.

Journalists with even a modicum of knowledge about their own industry see the eventual problem with this state of affairs. The Sunday Times, or rather its owner, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, has chosen a hard paywall as its business model for a reason: without one, it envisages less of a business.


Neither the product nor the payment model is loved by everyone, but the great thing is it’s not compulsory to sign up to it. Everybody is free to let it pass them by. A small cohort, however, not only believe the entire media should be on their terms, but they deem it a higher moral purpose to make this so.

For sure, news publishers with hard paywalls have always been obliged to write off income that will be lost to shared logons and screengrabs. Today, however, they must also have it explained to them that these circumventing tricks are deployed not to save a few quid, but as principled opposition to their nefarious charging ways.

Amazingly, the most prolific screenshot offender for the Sunday Times article was someone from a rival media outlet: Guardian columnist Owen Jones set the example to people outside the industry when he posted 25 images on Twitter showing multiple paragraphs of the story, only posting a link to it in his 26th tweet. This went far beyond the string of eight paraphrased snippets that The Sunday Times had itself tweeted as a teaser for an article that cost time and money to produce.

Jones claimed his action had given The Sunday Times more clicks as a result – and that followers of his were telling him they were buying a copy of the newspaper all thanks to his tweets. I like to imagine Rupert Murdoch hearing this and channelling his best Andrew Cuomo: "What am I supposed to do, send a bouquet?"

Overwhelming coverage

But you don’t have to be Murdoch to see these incredible justifications and think, um, who are you to decide?

The other defence – that the article should be free on public interest grounds – is almost as flimsy. It is a suggestion heard a lot of late: that the right to access coronavirus coverage outweighs the commercial imperatives that in many cases allow that coverage to exist. It’s a subject with many nuances, but permit me to boil it down to a simple reusable mantra: just because The New York Times can afford it, doesn’t mean every other news publisher can.

Almost all news is coronavirus news now. Its ubiquity not only explains why free, unfettered coverage isn’t an option for many lockdown-stymied news outlets, it also negates the argument that every inch of it should be offered up for nothing in the first place.

Indeed, several free-to-access media outlets had already covered similar big-picture territory to that in the Sunday Times article. Key details, such as Johnson’s absence from the first five emergency Cobra meetings on the virus, and the broad thrust – the political hubris, the personal protective equipment supply issues – were already in the public domain. The power of this piece lay in how it was crafted, vintage Sunday-style. No sentence sagged, no portion of the word count was wasted.

Added value then came from the drama of this being a Murdoch product prepared to wound the British prime minister: picture choices included Johnson's February selfie with new fiancée Carrie Symonds, while for some extra nausea, readers were reminded of the new-year escapade in which he holidayed at a luxury Mustique villa "facilitated" to him by a big-business Conservative donor.

If the everything-should-be-free tweeters were honest, they would admit that they read and shared the article out of more than a desire to inform or even horrify themselves and others. Anyone who wanted fresh vindication of their Johnson-related facepalms was also well served by it.

Perceived endorsement

Of course, some people vow never to make any purchase they would regard as an enrichment of a billionaire mogul like Murdoch or an endorsement of everything else The Sunday Times has ever published. It is absolutely their right to feel that way about any title.

But applying a personal sense of ethics to consumer choices by definition involves a sacrifice; it’s not about avoiding the things you were always going to reject, then finding surreptitious ways to access the parts that, hang on, you do fancy.

Quite a few journalists see the logic of hard paywalls becoming more common, not less. I have only one plea: if you’re in the fervent habit of extensively repackaging the work of others into self-aggrandising Twitter threads for the sake of likes and retweets, at least have the decency to admit it’s a selfish act and the wit to know it’s a short-sighted one.