Brent on Obama

newstatesman.com' s weekly tour of the political blogosphere with your guide Paul Evans

Dawn breaking

Like many people, I drank a six-pack of Coors to celebrate the inauguration of President Obama this week. His elevation to leader of the free nations may have be causing ripples around the world – but he could hardly have anticipated the impact it would have on the streets of Brent.

Boundary changes have left sitting MPs Dawn Butler and diminutive Lib Dem Sarah Teather engaged in an increasingly desperate battle to win the new seat of Brent Central at the next general election.

But has gone OTT with her online announcement of an exclusive endorsement from Barack Obama, containing lines as astonishingly awful as:

“I say to the people of Brent you should have the audacity of hope and when someone asks you can she do it, you respond yes we can.”

Iain Dale was quickly on the case, asking: “Surely Barack Obama wouldn't have written such a trite and self serving paragraph himself? Would he?” adding caustically: “Pass the sick bag, Alice”.

The authenticity of the saccharine note, printed on House of Commons paper, soon came under scrutiny, courtesy of the Unity on Liberal Conspiracy who reckoned a “bonehead stunt” had been perpetuated using Photoshop. Under pressure from the Standard blogger Paul Waugh, Butler stuck to her guns – claiming that Obama had pre-agreed the wording prior to meeting her at Downing Street, and then signed the endorsement.

Belfast-based xetera thought that this strange episode was symptomatic of the “Obama juice” phenomenon, where politicians desperately claw for a link to the President in “...the hope that, like some sort of secret potion, a tenuous connection to the man will provide a little personal boost”.

Whatever the truth, the endorsement is inaccurate. The claim that Butler is one of just two black women in parliament ignores the fact that there are two Houses of Parliament, and that one of them was led for several years by Valerie Amos.

What have we learned this week?

It isn't just Brent that is touched by Obama's magic – the Emerald Isle has been similarly transformed, as we learn via the ever-magnificent Slugger O'Toole.

Around the World

Jahanshah Rashidian on Rotten Gods gives some interesting history on the leftist factions in post-revolution Iran who perhaps unwittingly sold out the working classes to maintain strategic alliances with right-wing Islamic groups. He recounts:

“Their new independent trade unions were banned and replaced by Islamic societies formed by the Ministry of Labour. Their profit share and bonuses which were established under the Shah were nullified. The right of strike was rejected. Wages stayed low, many factories were shut down; and their workers were fired without any unemployment benefit.”

Today, Iran's left faces a steep challenge to assert itself as a secular and pro-union force. The Haft Tapeh sugar cane workers strike of last summer was met with characteristic brutality by state (five strike leaders were recently charged with propagandising against the government) but undeterred, efforts continue to secure better pay and conditions. Iran's loss is Britain's gain, as exile Maryam Namazi continues to prove, as one of the country's most passionate and articulate advocates of free expression and secularism.

Videos of the Week

In honour of the return of Ken Clarke to the fray, let us enjoy the sounds of the Kenny Clarke quartet.

Quote of the Week

“Brent Central was always going to be a dirty fight - Dawn has now provided the ammunition to make it even dirtier.”

Mike Smithson on Political Betting

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.
Photo: Will Ireland
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Rock solid-arity: how fans and bands helped save Team Rock's music magazines

“It was purely helping out friends in a time of need.”

A little over 25 years ago, a journalist friend let me in on the secret of publishing success. He cut his teeth in the Sixties as an editor in the Yippie underground press, wrote for Rolling Stone, Associated Press and the Chicago Sun-Times, then went on to teach at one of America’s most prestigious journalism schools.

The big secret, he had concluded, was community. No more, no less. Get to know your community and serve it well.

A quarter of a century on, it’s sometimes hard to remember what community looks like in newspapers and magazines. Carefully crafted pages have been obscured by a haze of clickbait, engineered to sucker everyone and anyone into donating a drive-by page view for ads. Community has given way to commodity.

But occasionally, there are glimpses of hope. Six months ago, TeamRock.com, built around a group of specialist music magazines including Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and Prog, went into administration.

The Christmas closure came brutally quickly. The Scottish Sun reported that stunned staff in the company’s Lanarkshire headquarters were told they had been made redundant “as a joiner changed the locks on their offices”. In total, 73 staff were laid off; nearly 30 in Scotland and more than 40 in London.

At the close of 2016, the future for the Team Rock brand and its stable of magazine titles was bleaker than a Black Sabbath album. But last month, in an extraordinary reversal of fortunes, TeamRock.com was named the most influential rock music website in the world.

Bargain-basement buy back

Just a fortnight after its shock closure, the brand was bought by former owners Future Plc. In a no-brainer deal, the Bath-based publisher re-acquired the three magazines it had sold to Team Rock’s founders in 2013. It bought back assets sold for £10m at the knockdown price of £800,000 with the bonus of TeamRock.com and Team Rock Radio. The deal rescued large parts of the Team Rock operation – but its soul was saved by the rock and metal community.

Oblivious to any discussions going on to rescue the magazines, readers, music fans and bands came together in a stunning display of loyalty. Hearing that Team Rock staff wouldn’t be getting paid their Christmas wage they took to social media to pledge their support and raised almost £90,000 for redundant staff.

Ben Ward, the organiser of the crowdfunding campaign and frontman for heavy metal band Orange Goblin said he started the appeal with no thought for the business. “It was purely helping out friends in a time of need,” he explained.

He had read all three Team Rock magazines for years, socialised with their staff and promoted his own and other bands in their pages. “To think of a world without any of those magazines – it was devastating,” he said.

The response to the campaign brought him some cheer, with members of bands such as Queen, Rush and Avenged Sevenfold all posting about it on their social media pages. He added: “The whole Christmas period, my phone just wouldn't stop beeping with notifications for another donation.”

Show of solidarity

Though the fundraiser blew up all Ward's expectations, beating his initial target by more than 400 per cent, he didn't seem completely surprised by the scale of the response.

“Heavy metal and hard rock, people that are into that sort of music, we've always been sort of looked down upon. We know it's not commercially the done thing, we know it's not the norm to walk around with long hair and tattoos and dirty leather jackets. But when you see a fellow metal head in the supermarket, you always give them an approving nod. There's a kind of solidarity.”

While favourable capitalist arithmetic has kept the presses rolling – and the online servers going – for Team Rock, it was the music community – empowered by social media – who delivered the real resurrection. With a combined Facebook following of more than 3.5million and a total social media audience of almost five million, it was no surprise TeamRock.com was soon number one in its field.

“What's brilliant about this is that it's based on what music fans share with each other,” explains editor-in-chief Scott Rowley.

TeamRock.com became the most influential rock site based on social media sharing, and came fifth in the top 100 sites across all music genres. The site above it is a hip-hop title, again featured for the strength of its community, according to Rowley. “Those people really know what they're talking about, they want very specific content, and they're not getting served it elsewhere,” he said. “When they get it, they love it and they share it and talk about it and that's their world.”

Responsiblity

Following the outpouring of support for the rock magazines, Rowley now feels a heightened sense of responsibility to do “the right thing” and steer clear of cynical decisions to get clicks or put certain bands on the cover just to sell copies. He believes future success will come down to trust. “Sometimes that feels precarious, but equally I think we're in good hands,” he explains. “We're a business, we've got to make money, but we know what smells fake and where the limits are.”

Zillah Byng-Thorne, CEO of owner Future, recognises the need to balance the realities of running a listed company with the authenticity needed to maintain trust. “What Future is interested in is the passion that underpins specialist media,” she says. “I don't really mind what your passion is, what's important is that it's a passion.”

“No one is sitting around thinking, 'I wonder what bands sound like Thin Lizzy?',” says Rowley. “We're much more a part of their lifestyle, interrupting their day to tell them someone’s just released an album or announced a tour.”

“But it doesn't have to always be about fishing for clicks,” he adds. “I remember [Classic Rock online editor] Fraser Lewry saying, 'Sometimes on social we should just be being social'.”

Being social. Listening. Contributing to the conversation. Sharing the passion. That old-fashioned notion of serving the community. It seems Ward would agree, as he offers the new owners of the magazines he helped to save some advice: “Don't make the same mistakes, investing in things that weren't really necessary from the magazine’s point of view. I'm in no position to tell anyone how to run their business, but on behalf of the rock and metal community…keep it interesting, keep it relevant.”