Defending newspapers

Harold Evans provides a vigorous defence of the press

Harold Evans, who has gone into bat for the Observer in recent weeks, mounts a vigorous defence of newspapers in the latest edition of the New York Times Book Review.

In a review of Alex Jones's Losing the News he argues that in an age of rapid-fire headlines the more patient and reflective approach taken by the press is a positive virtue:

Obviously we don't want to be told what we know already, but significance may not be governed by the clock. The most valuable element in journalism is often enough not an episode that occurred today, yesterday or, horrors, the day before. It's the creation of a new awareness provided by either months of investigation or relentlessly regular coverage.

The extraordinary investigation by the Daily Telegraph into MPs' expenses as well as those by the Guardian into tax avoidance, police brutality and the News of the World's phone-hacking operation are testament to this.

Evans, who edited the Sunday Times from 1967-81 and the Times from 1981-82, doesn't settle on a solution for preserving quality journalism (options include online content charging, state subsidy or more nonprofit trusts) but he does make it resoundingly clear that one must be found.

Even the best of the new media, such as the Huffington Post, remain dependent on newspapers, particularly foreign correspondents, for the news they analyse and comment on. The New York Times's willingness to spend $3m on maintaining its Baghdad bureau is a good example.

But while Evans remains incurably romantic about newspapers, he sensibly recognises that in this age we must be "platform agnostic": "I love newspapers, too, but in the end what really matters will not be saving newspapers. It will be, as Jones himself says, 'saving the news'."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.