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Do You Want a Free Press in the UK?

Laurie Fitzjohn is trying to crowd-fund enough money to purchase The Times off News Corp.

It kind of seems like you can do everything with crowd funding these days. Want to build a surveillance drone to spy on the Russian army? Crowd fund it. Raise money for tuition fees? Crowd fund it. Compelled to bring a designated watermelon carrier to market? Crowd fund it. Either the internet is full of flippant millionaires or people who are incredibly bad with the little money they have, but it does appear to be possible to get financial backing for basically anything.


This idea – that anything’s possible with a little help from some anonymous strangers – isn’t lost on Laurie Fitzjohn, founder of the Let’s Own the News crowd funding campaign. Laurie and the rest of his team hope to raise £100 million, which they’ll spend on buying The Times and The Sunday Times from News Corp. That might sound like a highly ambitious pipe dream, but their mission to create a truly free press in the UK now has over £275,000 pledged by supporters, suggesting there are plenty of people out there who share their desire. Next up is working out how to convince News Corp to sell.

I gave Laurie a call to find out a little more about the campaign.

Laurie Fitzjohn

VICE: Hi Laurie, what inspired you to start Let's Own the News?
Laurie Fitzjohn: I suppose it came from looking at the phone hacking scandal and the Leveson royal charter. I was really quite amazed at how ownership has not come up and was sort of lost in the debate. I’m not doing this because I want to change The Times; it’s the fact that five people control 80 percent of the newspapers you read, so it’s not a free press.

If you’re going to vote, how can you trust what you read when it’s owned by a few people? An editor is always going to be a powerful person – and newspapers are obviously opinionated, and they should be. But, in a democracy, you want to trust the source of information, and you can trust it more if that editor is not there for life, if they’re held to account by a board, in a proper board meeting with minutes. I think that for democracy to function, at some point you need to own the press.


Do you come from a media background?
I worked for eight years in investment banking and I did a little while in venture capital, so I come from the finance side, but there are some more media-background people on the team. I founded a student newspaper at Cambridge University called The Berry, so I had done some media stuff before. I also used to be involved in politics a bit. I used to be in Tory party, but I haven’t done anything for probably five years. I suppose my views have drifted more to the centre as I’ve become more disillusioned with the mainstream Westminster politics.

Buying The Times and The Sunday Times from News Corp seems pretty inconceivable. Do you think it's truly possible?
Obviously it’s very audacious, and obviously it’s not easy. This is very early days for us, and maybe it doesn’t work, but lots of big changes seem impossible. I do genuinely think that, at some point, whether it’s now or in the future, people need to own the press or have more collective control. You look at democracy and initially we didn’t have the vote. We gained the vote in the 19th century and our politicians have become more diverse by reflecting us, but there’s still one part missing, which is actually having a proper trusted source of information.

Crowd funding has really been rising rapidly – £120 per Times reader isn’t that much. The Times' readers are, on average, wealthier, and it’s a third of the cost of their annual digital subscription. So for a third of the money, you get to own the paper, which some people would find quite appealing. So while it’s a lot of money to raise, I do think it’s an attractive investment.


Do you actually think News Corp would sell?
This is obviously the hardest thing, because in the end they can just refuse, which is probably what everyone assumes will happen. But I do think News Corp’s reputation took a big hit from the phone hacking scandal, and politicians can’t be supportive of them if they’re that poorly regarded. Their public image is important, and it would increase the share price of News Corp, so there are reasons for why they should sell. If they do refuse, you’re still making a point, because you’re saying, “OK, News Corp isn’t being run for profit,” because most companies would at least consider selling an asset at the right price, especially a loss-making asset that everyone values as negative to zero. It would also show that they’re holding it for political reasons.

Why did you choose The Times and The Sunday Times?
Firstly, it needs to be a newspaper that can be a profitable and attractive investment. So, in reality, The Independent is too small and actually loss-making, and will probably get shut down or scaled back. The Guardian’s not going to be for sale, and it’s also quite loss-making. The Telegraph is very profitable, so obviously it’s way too valuable – that would be out of reach. Then there’s the tabloids. We could have gone to The Sun, but then again, the valuation is much higher and it’s much harder to match up the potential investors with the amount of money you need to raise. The Times works because it’s the right size. £100 million is feasible, and it’s a company that has the scale to be attractive and profitable. Therefore, I think it’s the right balance of achievability, but also big enough to have an impact.


How would the ownership work?
So, basically, it would just be like a normal company structure: you’ve got shareholders, a board of directors, an AGM once a year where you vote in your board of directors, and the board of directors then oversee the editor. So the editor becomes answerable to a board rather than to Rupert Murdoch. This is the transparency of corporate governance because you’ve got this board which are overseeing collectively. You could introduce things – like if enough shareholders raise an issue, the board then have to respond. The editor still has the complete power; the board of directors is there to weigh up the commerciality and the ethical side of things, and therefore if all the readers were conflicting, the board would say, “OK, well, everyone’s got a different point of view. Editor, do what you want.”

Is this necessary in a time where so much journalism is moving online, away from the traditional constraints of print media?
I mean, there’s this idea out there that we are moving away from newspapers to a beautiful blogosphere of lots of citizen journalism, but the fact is, online, people still gravitate towards the big brands. People still want to have a trusted, well put together single source for their news. The Times has, what, 450 journalists? One blogger – one person on their own – is no replacement for that. Obviously the online world is a great addition, and it has helped in many ways, but there's a definite role for proper journalistic investigative work and researching things. So I really think there's often too much placed on what the internet can deliver.


How long do you see this project going on for?
Well, that’s kind of why we’ve done the two-stage thing, because it’s such a big audacious project that you can’t have a timescale, because you don’t know how long it’s going to take to raise the money. If it takes six months, you can’t ask someone to transfer money in and leave it there. This two-stage means we can build support, and then you only do formal crowd funding and ask people to transfer the money at the point where you think you can actually make it. There’s no real reason to end it at any point, and even if News Corp totally refused I think there’s no time limit on trying to make a free press if people are still supporting it and making a point around ownership. So maybe at some point it winds up and just becomes a campaigning organisation.

We’re in this age now where, suddenly, anything can be possible. I think it’s an exciting time we live in, because people can suddenly coordinate in large numbers much quicker than ever before, and I do think it’s changing the nature of democracy.

Thanks, Laurie.


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