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
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An unlikely alliance of Hollywood and British builders are exposing the impact of blacklisting

When a secret operation of blacklisting UK construction workers was uncovered six years ago, the prospect of a film like Trumbo making blacklists a talking point was laughable.

“Scores of people lost their homes, their families disintegrated . . . some even lost their lives.” So says Bryan Cranston in the title role of Trumbo, the new film about the blacklist of communist sympathisers that gripped Hollywood for over a decade from the late 1940s.

The screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a Communist party member, won two Oscars for his work under wraps during the blacklist era. But he spent almost a year in prison for his defiance of the US Congress’s inquisition into “un-American activities”.

Fifty-six years after the effective end of the blacklist and 5,500 miles from Hollywood, Cranston’s words are too close to home for a group of workers from a rather different demographic. In 2009, a government raid on a shady outfit called the Consulting Association discovered a database of over 3,000 builders in an unassuming office in the West Midlands.

With the sponsorship and co-operation of the likes of Balfour Beatty, Skanska, Carillion and Sir Robert McAlpine, the company worked to systematically deny employment to political activists and workplace safety reps who had raised grievances with bosses. Some files contained information that activists believe could only have been supplied by the police.

This week, 71 blacklistees were paid £5.6m by the firms. Hundreds more are fighting on to face the company chiefs in a High Court trial in May.

Some lost their homes, their families, their lives, as Dave Smith and Phil Chamberlain chronicle in their book Blacklisted. In 1995, Roy Bentham, a joiner from Merseyside, was added to the list after taking part in a strike, and soon could not find work anywhere in the northwest. “Being apart from my long-term girlfriend also put a strain on me and her emotionally,” he says. “We have subsequently split up. It does impact on your home life – and it’s still impacting now.”

In Trumbo, the title character clashes repeatedly over resistance tactics with fellow blacklisted writer Arlen Hird, a composite character played by Louis CK. After both men are released from jail, Hird first proposes to sue production companies for lost earnings, but later slams Trumbo for seeing revenge purely in financial terms – and forgetting the politics.

Blacklisted builders face similar dilemmas. Initially unions entered into talks with construction firms over compensation – but these broke down after the firms unilaterally launched their own scheme, branded “cut-price” by reps.

Some of the legal claims now due for the High Court were served as long ago as 2013. But in the past few weeks the litigants have come under immense pressure to withdraw. If they refuse to accept bosses’ offers and the courts subsequently award them less, workers will be forced to cover the firms’ legal fees.

Campaigners say the companies have already spent £20m fighting the claims, and are using this threat to “buy themselves out” of the embarrassing spectacle of having to testify in court.

Trumbo, however, offers a ray of hope. When the secret operation was uncovered six years ago, the prospect of Hollywood making a talking point of blacklisting was laughable. Activists are annoyed their own cases have been met by a “radio silence”. But the Blacklist Support Group wants to take advantage of the buzz around the film, and is encouraging its members to write to their local papers and speak up at public events about the impact of the Consulting Association database.

They will be helped by the fact that Trumbo, in spite of its Hollywood razzmatazz, is a fundamentally political film. Pride, the acclaimed 2014 picture about Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, did not mention the Communist affiliation of key character Mark Ashton – reportedly to avoid alienating American audiences. Not so in Trumbo. The film even makes a compelling case that the relative comfort of Hollywood is no reason to withdraw our sympathy – and reminds us that scores of poorer and less powerful communists suffered too. “It shows that blacklisting is not a one-off aberration – it’s part and parcel of how capitalism works,” Smith, himself on the construction database, tells me.

It’s hard to imagine blacklists in Britain have been confined to the building trade. It shouldn’t take a blockbuster to make such flagrant human rights abuses a hot topic – but it’s unsurprising it has, given the decline of industrial journalism and the bias of our legal system. Three cheers for Hollywood.

 Conrad Landin is the Morning Star's industrial correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @conradlandin.