Are we entering a post-exclusive age?

Being first just doesn’t have the same appeal it once did.

What’s the value in exclusivity? When the Sun launched its Sunday edition recently, it boasted 12 "exclusives" in its first edition, so they must think it’s pretty important.

Its big sister paper, the Sunday Times, had a wonderful exclusive piece of investigative journalism the other week, in which former Conservative Party treasurer Peter Cruddas was filmed apparently offering access to the Prime Minister in return for donations.

The exclusive made huge ripples. But how many people rushed out to the newsagent to buy the Sunday Times itself? Due to the Times and Sunday Times paywall – another form of exclusivity – ordinary curious punters couldn’t flock to the website to read about it, either. But it didn’t take more than an hour or so for the first versions of the story to appear on unpaywalled, unrestricted, free-to-see news websites and aggregators.

Once the story was out, it was out. It wasn’t exclusive any longer. If you’d already bought a Sunday paper, and were using that Sunday paper as a way of hoping to get exclusive stories, you might be slightly peeved; but Sunday papers are about so much more than news, and besides, any self-respecting news junkie would catch up online or via TV news channels soon enough. That way they could get the analysis of the fast-moving story as it progressed throughout the day, including the reaction to it. There was no need to buy the Sunday Times.

The Sunday Times followed it up with a less successful "exclusive" the week after, held back from the first week’s bombshell, in which Cruddas said Tories needed to be seen to be fighting for the Union even if they didn’t particularly agree with it. That story just didn’t have the same appeal. It was exclusive, yes, but what did it reveal? Something people probably suspected anyway. It was just a politician giving an opinion. It wasn’t big news.

All of which leaves you wondering what, exactly, exclusivity gave the Sunday Times with that story. They were first to the news, yes, and their little logo appeared on the grainy footage released to TV news companies, so it was a successful marketing exercise. But beyond that, what did it achieve? We are in a place now where exclusivity doesn’t work. There are a hundred and one workarounds if you really want to see something that’s being kept from you.

Take sport, for example. There was a time when live action of Premier League matches took place in a secure gated community – you either had to buy a Sky subscription, or you missed out, and would have to wait for the BBC highlights at a later date. But that restriction simply doesn’t exist nowadays. It takes about half a minute online to find live Premier League football, Test match cricket, Formula One (half of which is now ‘exclusive’ on Sky) or whatever you want to watch.

The Premier League hasn’t quite caught up. You can’t even see video highlights of goals from last night’s games, for example, not even on the league’s own website. Someone, somewhere probably has ‘exclusive’ rights and you’re supposed to care. Do fans care? No. They can find the goals if they want to watch them; the exclusivity means nothing.

Sky TV has the exclusive Sky Atlantic, a channel where dramas that get rave reviews are watched by nobody. Despite the Guardian devoting at least forty-three articles to Mad Men every day last month, a grand total of 47,000 hearty souls watched the first episode when it aired.

At least, 47,000 people did the right thing, paid their Sky subs, waited nicely on the carpet with their legs crossed, and then got shown the programme. They were rewarded with some actual 1960s commercials during the ad breaks to immerse themselves completely in the experience, and they could tell themselves it was all in sparkling HD, but was it really worth it?

There were probably thousands of others who just waited a couple of days for the programme to become available and watched it in the comfort of their own homes. Was it in crystal-clear HD with the funny little 60s adverts to make you feel even more rewarded for having watched it? Not always. Does that matter? Not to everyone.

Perhaps we’re entering a post-exclusive age, in which broadcasters know you can watch their pay-to-air stuff for nothing, but will try to lure you with the promise of HD and extra goodies. I don’t see how exclusives can be made to work for newspapers as anything other than a marketing tool, but perhaps that’s where we’ve come to: news is being used as a loss leader to bring customers in for the unique feature content. Being first just doesn’t have the same appeal it once did.

The first edition of the Sun on Sunday boasted 12 "exclusives". Photograph: Getty Images.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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Tory right-wingers are furious about Big Ben – but it’s their time that’s running out

They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock.

Jeremy Corbyn, it is often said, wants to take Britain back to the 1970s.

The insult is halfway to an insight. It’s true that the Labour leader and his inner circle regard British economic policy since the late 1970s as an extended disaster that led to the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the European Union: a “failed experiment”, as Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s influential policy chief, puts it in his 2014 book of the same name.

The Labour leader views the 1970s not as a blighted decade waiting for a saviour, but as a time when trade unions still had teeth, privatisation was not treated as a panacea and inequality was lower.

Theresa May doesn’t see the past four decades in quite the same light, but she does believe that the Brexit vote was, in part, the destabilising consequence of an economic settlement that has left too many people in Britain without a stake in society. This means, for now at least, an ideology that was until recently a consensus has no defenders at the top of either party.

May’s successor might conceivably be an unrepentant cheerleader for free markets and the Anglo-Saxon model of capitalism, but as things stand, whoever replaces May faces an uphill battle to be anything other than a brief pause before Corbyn takes over. Because of the sputtering British economy and the prospect of a severe downturn after Brexit – coupled with the Labour leader’s rising personal ratings – it is the opposition that has momentum on its side, in both senses of the word.

All of which might, you would expect, trigger panic among members of the Conservative right. Neoliberalism is their experiment, after all, the great legacy of their beloved Margaret Thatcher. Yet while there are a few ministers and backbenchers, particularly from the 2010 intake, who grasp the scale of the threat that Corbynism poses to their favoured form of capitalism, they are outnumbered by the unaware.

For the most part, the average Tory believes, in essence, that the 2017 election was a blip and that the same approach with a more persuasive centre-forward will restore the Conservative majority and put Corbyn back in his box next time round. There are some MPs who are angry that Nick Timothy, May’s former aide, has waltzed straight from the 2017 disaster to a column in the Daily Telegraph. That the column is titled “Ideas to Win” only adds to the rage. But most generally agree with his diagnosis that the party will do better at the next election than at the last, almost by default.

And it’s not that the Conservative right isn’t panicked by anything, as a result of some state of advanced Zen calm: many are exercised by the silence of Big Ben during its scheduled four years of repairs.

Yet you don’t even have to go as far back as 1970 for a period of silence from Elizabeth Tower. The bongs stopped ringing for planned maintenance in 2007 and for two years from 1983 to 1985, and the Great Clock stopped unexpectedly in 1976. What distinguishes this period of renovation from its predecessors is not its length but the hysteria it has generated, among both the right-wing press and the Conservative right. The Brexit Secretary, David Davis, described letting the bells go quiet as “mad”, while James Gray, a Conservative backbencher, went further, dubbing the repairs “bonkers”.

The reason why the bongs must be stilled is that they risk deafening and endangering the workers repairing the bell. Working around them would further extend the maintenance period, potentially silencing the clock for ever. The real divide isn’t between people who are happy for the bell to fall silent and those who want to keep it ringing, but between politicians who want to repair and preserve the bell and those who risk its future by squabbling over a four-year silence. There may well be “mad” behaviour on display, but it certainly isn’t coming from the repairmen.

The row is a microcosm of the wider battle over parliament’s renovation. The estate badly needs urgent repairs to make it fire-safe and vermin-free – in the past year, the authorities have had to spend in excess of £100,000 on pest control, with bed bugs the latest pest to make a home at Westminster. If it isn’t made safe, it could burn down.

The cheapest and most secure option for MPs is to decamp down the road to the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, just a few minutes’ walk from parliament. But the current delay, facilitated by Theresa May, increases the cost of repairs. The Prime Minister has also weighed in on the row over Big Ben, telling reporters that it “cannot be right” for the bell to go quiet. Westminster’s traditionalists, largely drawn from the Conservative right, talk up the importance of preserving the institution but their foot-dragging endangers the institution they want to protect. As for May, her interventions in both cases speak to one of her biggest flaws: while she is not an idiot, she is altogether too willing to say idiotic things in order to pander to her party’s rightmost flank. That same deference to the Tory right caused her to shred or water down her attempts to rejig the British economic model, ceding that ground to Corbyn.

A Labour victory at the next election isn’t written in stone. The winds blowing in the opposition’s favour are all very much in the control of the government. The Conservatives could embark on a programme of extensive housebuilding, or step in to get wages growing again or to turn around Britain’s low productivity. Philip Hammond could use his next Budget to ease the cuts to public spending. They could, in short, either declare that the experiment hasn’t failed and vigorously defend it, or write off their old project and create another one. They could take both Corbyn and the present moment seriously. Instead, they are arguing about a clock, oblivious to the reality that their time is running out. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia