One question which has not really been asked, as the Cameron-Coulson-Brooks-Murdoch-Met stitch-up continues to unravel to extraordinary effect, is the longer-term fate of the hero in this drama, namely The Guardian. This is not surprising, as it isn't the most urgent issue right now. Peter Wilby assesses the likely media landscape, sans NoTW, and concludes that it will not be an attractive one. Then there is copious comment dedicated to the future of regulation, post-Press Complaints Commission. But it is chilling to think that none of this was inevitable, indeed (as the combined intelligence of the Conservative leadership and the Metropolitan Police appears to have concluded) it was actually highly unlikely. So The Guardian has fixed itself within the British constitution in an important way. This is in addition to the important role it played in analysing and publishing the embassy cables and war-logs handed to Wikileaks last year.
To get the frippery out of the way first of all, it would absurd if The Guardian's Nick Davies does not get offered a knighthood at the end of all this. I trust he'd turn it down, but anything less would suggest that Prince Charles and his cronies were sympathetic to wholesale corruption in British public life. What easier way to legitimate the monarchy in the eyes of our jaded, post-modern excuse for liberal society, than to throw its weight behind individuals who care how power is exercised and authorised. Consider this campaign officially opened.
The longer-term cause for concern is contained in articles such as these, regarding the sustainability of The Guardian's business model in the digital era. When debating whether 'the public being interested' equates to 'the public interest', as many have over the past week or two, some time should be spent considering how investigative journalism on this scale is to be financed and protected in future. The internet has proved itself very adept at identifying and distributing 'stuff the public is interested in', especially where that concerns humorous animals, but we (still) believe that there is more to 'the public interest', than mere transparency+crowd-sourcing. This has been manifest, for example, in the division of labour between Wikileaks and print media over the past year. Discovering the 'public interest' costs money, in a way that 'stuff the public is interested in' doesn't necessarily.
Even many 'copy-left' enthusiasts in the past have had to accept that (enforceable) copyright is indispensable in areas of publishing with very high overheads, such as blockbuster films. The same is surely true in investigative journalism. Unlike Gawker-type rapid turnover gossip, sustained investigations require sources of finance that are independent of 'the public being interested' - at least in the short-term. The appropriate analogy is perhaps less to copyright industries such as film, and more to R&D-based patent industries such as pharmaceuticals, in which the outcome of an investment and the time horizon of its return are intrinsically uncertain. But then The Guardian can hardly monopolise or license access to its 'discovery' regarding the NoTW using some sort of patent.
There are, as I argued in this article, plenty of reasons to fear the rise of 'free-as-in-beer' in public life, most notably that it potentially imperils 'free-as-in-speech'. Or as it's been said elsewhere, "if you are not paying for it, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold." The paying customer has certain powers and freedoms that the unpaying user never will. At present, a hard copy of The Guardian also represents a daily £1 investment in the auditing of the British establishment, an investment which many are no longer prepared to make, seeing as they can free-ride on those who do. Ironic, after all we've been told about wikipedia, creative commons and linux as the basis of the new 'commons', that those handing hard cash to their local newsagent are actually the ones making the most urgent contribution to the common good.
How precisely investigative journalism will be funded in the future is an open question. But the first principle must be that it is funded at all, in defiance of the Jeff Jarvis brigade (who The Guardian has been heavily influenced by) who believe that 'free-as-in-beer' is like an unstoppable tide, and 'free-as-in-speech' will simply have to keep up however it can. The BBC is obviously one crucial resource in this respect, and will presumably start gearing up for its next Royal Charter in the next couple of years, which hack-gate will hopefully influence. A further irony is that Murdoch's own commitment to paid-for newspaper content may be a further counter-weight, albeit a knee-jerk one, to the rise of free 'stuff the public is interested in'.
None of this is to under-estimate the technological and demographic challenges facing newspapers, or to disrespect the guts of The Guardian in trying to move into an open-access, post-print model. But in amongst the various battles that are playing out via the NoTW scandal, there is one important lesson that shouldn't be lost. This is that elite business and political interests operate via conglomeration, hierarchy and force of money, using cash to convert power in one sphere into power in another. The notion that these machinations can be held to account by a public sphere occupied by bloggers, social networking, amateur commentators and rapid-turnover online-only news sites (or, for that matter, 'The Big Society') must rank as one of the flimsiest ideologies ever proffered. If money talks, then critics need money too - not simply secured via day-to-day discoveries of 'things that interest the public', but year-to-year concern for 'the public interest'. What the answer is, I don't know. But the question needs asking, and 'free' evangelists are not helping.