Campaign to save the Observer gathers pace

Peep Show's David Mitchell agrees to speak at a public meeting to defend the paper

I'm delighted to see that David Mitchell, one of the stars of the brilliant Peep Show, has agreed to speak at a public meeting later this month to defend the Observer.

As I first reported here, the paper has been threatened with closure by the Guardian Media Group (GMG) as the company attempts to stem losses that stood at nearly £90m this year.

Other options under consideration by the Scott Trust, which owns GMG, are thought to include turning the Observer into a weekly magazine or publishing a vastly slimmed-down version of the paper. An internal review by the trust sometime this autumn is expected to reach a decision on the title's future.

The meeting, which has been called by Press Gazette and the National Union of Journalists, will also hear from the former Observer editor Donald Trelford.

Mitchell, who currently writes a weekly column for the paper, may have a more direct interest than most in its survival, but he is right to celebrate the title as "the only proper liberal Sunday paper".

You may notice that I have managed to get this far without once referring to the Observer as the "world's oldest Sunday newspaper". There is little reason beyond mere sentimentality for its age to be relevant to the debate.

I also have some sympathy with those on the left who argue that the paper deserves little support after its disastrous decision to support the Iraq war. But a tendency to subordinate wider considerations to this conflict has been one of the more unattractive traits of the left in recent years and doesn't deserve to apply in this case.

The Observer was one of the first titles, notably through the columns of Henry Porter, to give considerable space to civil liberties campaigns. It has published some of the finest commentary on the economic crisis by Will Hutton and William Keegan. And it remains one of the few papers to include lengthy analysis of foreign affairs beyond Washington.

I'll be reporting on the public meeting at the Friends Meeting House in King's Cross for this blog and I urge you all to attend.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The private renting sector enables racist landlords like Fergus Wilson

A Kent landlord tried to ban "coloured people" from his properties. 

Fergus Wilson, a landlord in Kent, has made headlines after The Sun published his email to a letting agent which included the line: "No coloured people because of the curry smell at the end of the tenancy."

When confronted, the 70-year-old property owner only responded with the claim "we're getting overloaded with coloured people". The letting agents said they would not carry out his orders, which were illegal. 

The combination of blatant racism, a tired stereotype and the outdated language may make Wilson seem suspiciously like a Time Landlord who has somehow slipped in from 1974. But unfortunately he is more modern than he seems.

Back in 2013, a BBC undercover investigation found 10 letting agent firms willing to discriminate against black tenants at the landlord's request. One manager was filmed saying: "99% of my landlords don't want Afro-Caribbeans."

Under the Equality Act 2010, this is illegal. But the conditions of the private renting sector allow discrimination to flourish like mould on a damp wall. 

First, discrimination is common in flat shares. While housemates or live-in landlords cannot turn away a prospective tenant because of their race, they can express preferences of gender and ethnicity. There can be logical reasons for this - but it also provides useful cover for bigots. When one flat hunter in London protested about being asked "where do your parents come from?", the landlord claimed he just wanted to know whether she was Christian.

Second, the private rental sector is about as transparent as a landlord's tax arrangements. A friend of mine, a young professional Indian immigrant, enthusiastically replied to house share ads in the hope of meeting people from other cultures. After a month of responding to three or four room ads a day, he'd had just six responses. He ended up sharing with other Indian immigrants.

My friend suspected he'd been discriminated against, but he had no way of proving it. There is no centrally held data on who flatshares with who (the closest proxy is SpareRoom, but its data is limited to room ads). 

Third, the current private renting trends suggest discrimination will increase, rather than decrease. Landlords hiked rents by 2.1 per cent in the 12 months to February 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics, an indication of high demand. SpareRoom has recorded as many as 22 flat hunters chasing a single room. In this frenzy, it only becomes harder for prospective tenants to question the assertion "it's already taken". 

Alongside this demand, the government has introduced legislation which requires landlords to check that tenants can legitimately stay in the UK. A report this year by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that half of landlords were less likely to rent to foreign nationals as a result of the scheme. This also provides handy cover for the BTL bigot - when a black British tenant without a passport asked about a room, 58 per cent of landlords ignored the request or turned it down

Of course, plenty of landlords are open-minded, unbiased and unlikely to make a tabloid headline anytime soon. They most likely outnumber the Fergus Wilsons of this world. But without any way of monitoring discrimination in the private rental sector, it's impossible to know for sure. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.