LAST week, acting judge Daniel Berger delivered a ruling with grim implications for one of the last few institutions of democracy standing — the media. The case began in 2014 after Naspers’s Fin24 had taken the notion of a “free press” a tad too literally and had routinely copied articles from rival Moneyweb.

Moneyweb editor Ryk van Niekerk described it as “plagiarism on an industrial scale”. It was hard to disagree.

In the end, the judge delivered a flawed ruling in which he found that of seven articles, Fin24 had broken the Copyright Act with only one.

Yet, curiously, Media24 CEO Esmaré Weideman still declared this a “huge victory for Fin24”.

This is some chutzpah, considering that, as Van Niekerk wryly pointed out, “the reality is that Fin24 stole an article” from a rival. And if you’re found guilty of one count of theft out of seven, you’re still a thief.

Though the ruling wasn’t all bad — it found that copyright could exist in news articles — in the final analysis, it has dire implications for journalism and the quality of information you can expect from the media.

The judge ruled that four of the seven articles weren’t “original work” deserving copyright protection.

Two other articles were deemed “original”, but he said Fin24 had dealt “fairly” by not copying the guts of those stories. This was too narrow a finding, however: Fin24 had stolen key elements of Moneyweb’s original exposé of the Defencex scam, which had taken plenty of hours and cash to investigate.

Only when it came to the last story did he say that “almost all of (Fin24’s) article is a word-for-word copy of (Moneyweb’s). In my view, Fin24 has taken more than a substantial part”.

Overall, it’s a dangerous precedent, seemingly providing carte blanche to media firms to eschew investing in original journalism in favour of hiring an army of copy-and-paste jockeys to trawl the Internet for other people’s handiwork to filch.

Some people fail to grasp this. Former Naspers executive Jannie Momberg, for example, said after the ruling that “this was always about new media versus old”.

Well, not really. Without any incentive for anyone to report news in the “old” way, there won’t be anything around for Momberg’s “new media” to steal.

Momberg argued in court papers that there is “no exclusivity in news”. And in an affidavit he said: “The method of journalism rather sanctimoniously espoused by [Moneyweb] of sending out reporters to the scene of each event, trying to conduct interviews and generally trying to obtain all information first-hand, has become largely outdated and antiquated in the 21st century practice of digital media publishing.”

Instead, media houses must “rely on the news being disseminated by the first reporter on the scene and then picked up upon and disseminated further”.

So, imagine what would happen when that single journalist gets it wrong (and reports, for example, that Nelson Mandela has died when he hasn’t), and everyone simply copies that?

Or more likely: what will happen when no media firms see any incentive to hire journalists to cover an event, like Marikana, when they know the copy-and-paste jockeys at Fin24 will nick their work anyway?

What we’ll get instead are brain-numbing front page stories about celebrity “Twitter wars”, or the “inside story of Marikana” reported from a desk by someone who has cobbled together SA police press releases.

Naspers chairman Koos Bekker told the Financial Mail that “original journalism will always sell, but the medium used will depend on the technology ... journalism as a trade will survive”.

Perhaps in some form, but its vanishing margins will have a direct impact on the quality of the information you get. Last week’s ruling made the future of proper journalism — the really crucial stuff that exposed Nkandla, arms deal bribes and rip-off artists like Ronald Bobroff — more precarious.

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