There is hope in the wreckage of the local press

There will always be local news, except that it is a less attractive investment. Perhaps that’s best

The decline of the local press continues. Last Friday, my local paper, the Bristol Evening Post, announced that 19 jobs (out of 56) were at risk.

It’s right across every news group and every publisher. Sales are dropping, advertising revenue has slumped and it still seems elusive to make profit from the digital offering. Daily papers are going weekly, and this won’t be the end of it.

Going, going, gone. Time was, when you got your foot in the door of a newspaper, you had a job for life, or could move on somewhere else, to better things. Now, you might have a job for two or three years at best in a "platform-neutral" newsroom where you’re expected to churn out multimedia content for the web as well as the ink editions – and then you’ll kicked down the Jobcentre with a paltry pay-off and no prospects.

When I worked at the Bristol Evening Post (soon to be renamed as simply the Post), the ominous invitation to a Friday afternoon “boardroom presentation” invitation was a relatively new development; the email from the editor-in-chief telling us what was happening was even written in the jolly Comic Sans font to try and soften the blow. Now it’s happening with more and more inevitability.

For years, newspapers milked their readers and advertisers for every penny they could make. Try placing a death notice in your local paper and you might be almost as traumatised by the price as you were by your bereavement: you might even be paying more for a tiny box in the classified section as a local business would have been for a quarter-page ad somewhere else.

When times were good, local papers made an absolute fortune. There was nowhere else to go to advertise a car or house or thing for sale; there was no ebay, no internet, no other forum – so prices went up, and up, and up, and the punters had to put up with it. A lot of people got very rich, and well done to them. Now the golden teat is running dry, there is no emotional attachment to the business of providing news.

To maintain the glorious era of ever-increasing growth over the short and medium term, something had to give. That something turned out to be that journalism bit of the publications that went above the adverts; the "non-revenue department" as editorial was sometimes referred to. It’s no surprise that when managing directors of the newspaper groups I used to work for visited the offices, they didn’t bother stopping on the editorial floor. They weren’t interested.

What a waste, what a bloody waste. What a waste of all the talent and skill of all those good people who worked their hardest, for miserably low pay, working well over and above their allotted hours just because of some naive sense of professionalism, because they believed in the job they were doing, even if their bosses didn’t. What a waste of it all.

There’s hope, in the wreckage. Some independent journalists are trying to start up small publications and websites, and some are succeeding, just as the print behemoths come crashing down around them. There will always be local news, except that soon it won’t be as attractive to invest in as it once was. Perhaps that’s best for everyone.
 

The Bristol Evening Post's offices. Photograph: © Lewis Clarke, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons License.
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser