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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times