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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The real question about George Osborne and the Evening Standard? Why he'd even want the job

The week in the media, from Osborne’s irrelevant editorship to the unrepentant McGuinness and Vera Lynn’s stirring ballads.

The big puzzle about George Osborne’s appointment as the editor of the London Evening Standard is why he wanted the job. The Standard is now just a local freesheet, a pale shadow of its old self. In Tube carriages, discarded copies far exceed those being read. Its columnists are lightweight [Ed: as an occasional columnist myself, thanks, Peter] and its news stale, mostly written the previous day. Critics of Osborne’s appointment describe the Standard as “a major newspaper”. It is no such thing. The idea that the editorship will allow the former chancellor to propel himself towards the London mayoralty is laughable. In last year’s election for mayor, the Standard, according to University of London research, ran twice as many positive headlines about the Tories’ Zac Goldsmith as it did about Labour’s Sadiq Khan. The latter won comfortably. The paper was so supportive of Khan’s predecessor, Boris Johnson, that it became known as “the Daily Boris”. But Johnson, with a high profile from television, hardly needed its backing to beat a tired and largely discredited Ken Livingstone.

If Osborne believes that the Standard offers him a significant political platform, it is just further proof that he belongs to an ignorant elite.

 

Violent legacy

More than anyone else, Martin McGuinness, who has died aged 66, represented how the IRA-Sinn Fein combined uncompromising violence with negotiating charm to achieve its aims. Unlike Gerry Adams, McGuinness admitted openly and proudly that he was a senior IRA commander. In Londonderry on Bloody Sunday in 1972 he carried a sub-machine gun, but apparently without using it. Later that year, he was among a delegation that held secret talks with British ministers and officials. The following year, he was arrested near a car containing prodigious quantities of explosives and ammunition.

Like many who recall the IRA’s campaign in mainland Britain – three huge bombs detonated less than half a mile from me – I could never quite accept McGuinness as a government minister and man of peace. Whatever he said, he did not renounce ­violence. He just had no further use for it, a decision that was reversible.

 

A peace of sorts

When I hear politicians saying they could never contemplate talks with al-Qaeda, I smile. They said the same about the IRA. The idea of negotiation, John Major said, “turns my stomach”. A month later, news leaked of secret talks that would lead to a ceasefire. You can call it hypocrisy but politicians have no practical alternative. Significant terrorist campaigns rarely end without deals of some sort. Even then, dishonesty is necessary. The parties to the Good Friday Agreement with Sinn Fein in 1998 never admitted the true terms, perhaps even to themselves. In return for a role in government, the IRA ceased attacks on the British mainland, army, governing classes and commercial interests. It remained in control of working-class Catholic enclaves in Northern Ireland, where it continued to murder, inflict punishment beatings and run protection rackets. Not a pretty bargain, but it brought peace of a sort.

 

Real war anthems

“We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover”, sung by Dame Vera Lynn, who has just celebrated her 100th birthday, are the songs most closely associated with the Second World War. This, when you think about it, is peculiar. Most wars are associated with stirring, patriotic anthems, not sentimental ballads. Even the First World War’s “Keep the Home Fires Burning”, before it mentions hearts yearning for home, stresses the noble, manly instincts that drove soldiers to fight: “They were summoned from the hillside/They were called in from the glen,/And the country found them ready/At the stirring call for men.” Lynn’s songs had only the wistful sadnesses of parting and reassurances that nothing would change.

Their “slushy” tone troubled the BBC. It feared they would weaken the troops’ fighting spirit. Despite Lynn’s high ratings among listeners at home and service personnel overseas, her radio series was dropped in favour of more virile programmes featuring marching songs. Unable to sing to her forces fans over the airwaves, Lynn bravely travelled to the army camps in Burma. A BBC centenary tribute showed veterans of the war against Japan weeping as her songs were played back.

The wartime role of this unassuming plumber’s daughter makes me – and, I suspect, millions of others – feel prouder to be British than any military anthem could.

 

Ham-fisted attempt

After his failed attempt to increase National Insurance contributions for the self-employed, Philip Hammond, it is said, will have a £2bn hole in his budget. It will be more than that. Thanks to the publicity, tens of thousands more workers in regular employment will be aware of the tax advantages of self-employed status and hasten to rearrange their affairs. Likewise, newspaper accountants of old, after circulating memos imploring journalists to reduce lavish claims for “subsistence” while covering stories away from the office, would find a sharp rise in claims from hacks previously unaware that such a perk existed.

 

Battle of Hastings

My fellow journalist Max Hastings, attending a West End play, was once dragged on stage by the comedian James Corden, told to help move a heavy trunk and slapped on the bottom. Ever since, I have approached plays starring comedians warily. I dropped my guard, however, when I bought tickets for a contemporary adaptation of Molière’s The Miser starring Griff Rhys Jones, and found myself drenched when Jones spilled (deliberately) what purported to be fine wine. It was of course only water and, unlike
Hastings, I shall not demand a refund.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution