PoliticsHome can remain impartial

Does the purchase of the website by Lord Ashcroft mark the end of its neutral stance? Not necessaril

Does the acquisition of PoliticsHome by Lord Ashcroft threaten the website's impartiality? Many on the liberal left think it does. Following the departure of the Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley as editor-in-chief, at least 21 left-leaning figures have resigned from the site's panel of 100 Westminster insiders.

The group resignation letter on Liberal Conspiracy cited concerns that the sale of a controlling stake in PoliticsHome to Ashcroft, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, was incompatible with the site's non-partisan stance.

The first point to make is that Ashcroft is surely self-interested enough to recognise that if he undermines the site's independence PoliticsHome will lose all credibility.

Total Politics, the magazine part-owned by Ashcroft, hasn't degenerated into a right-wing Pravda; that suggests the billionaire may be capable of separating his commercial interests from his political interests. The Labour MP Denis MacShane was one of those who resigned from the PoliticsHome panel, but he appears content to sit on the Total Politics editorial board.

Yet even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Ashcroft intends to transform the site into a partisan operation, there is little scope for him to do so. PoliticsHome is dominated by news aggregation and polling and currently features no opinionated commentary. Could this change under Ashcroft's ownership? Perhaps, but let's wait and see.

There's no evidence that the permanent involvement of the conservative Stephan Shakespeare, until recently sole owner of PoliticsHome, has compromised the site's impartiality. Certainly in my time at PoliticsHome (I worked there before joining the NS), I saw nothing to suggest that Shakespeare exercised Richard Desmond-style control. His links to the Conservative Party as Jeffrey Archer's former spokesman and as a former Tory election candidate were never disguised.

The backlash from the left is based largely on two factors. First, a supposition that Rawnsley's decision to resign means he must know something we don't. And second, a general disdain for Ashcroft, because of the millions he pours into marginal constituencies and his failure to clarify his tax status.

These are reasonable grievances against Ashcroft and they're ones I share, but it's a different argument. Is there a risk that PoliticsHome could acquire a subtle bias by giving less weight to stories that are likely to upset or anger Ashcroft? There is, but it's a risk greatly increased by the decision of so many on the left to sever their ties with the site.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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