The incestuous vortex of cross-promotion

OK! TV is the latest addition to the bewildering circle-jerk that is Richard Desmond’s media empire.

"OK! TV kicked off to a triumphant start," said OK! magazine this week in an interview with the OK! TV host Kate Walsh. The Channel 5 show could be glad of one positive review, at least, even if the more cynical among us might suspect that due to printing deadlines it may have been written before the "triumphant start" had even gone to air.

But then this is the bewildering circle-jerk that is Richard Desmond's empire right now. OK! TV, Channel 5's new brightly coloured approximation of a couple of vapid office drones chattering about celebrities over a water cooler, promotes OK! magazine. The Daily Star and Daily Express promote OK! TV and OK! magazine, as well as giving remarkably positive reviews to the likes of the Channel 5 host Vanessa Feltz; OK! magazine has a two-page feature telling you what's coming up this week on Channel 5 . . . and so on, and so on.

"We are beyond excited by the launch of OK! TV," said the magazine's editor in a leader this week. Beyond excited!

The incestuous vortex of cross-promotion gets to the point where if you see something in a Desmond publication that isn't anything to do with another of his assets, you wonder why it's there at all. And which one is meant to be the flagship? Is Channel 5 the jewel in the crown, or is it OK!, or the Daily Express? Or are they all fighting for the title of least mediocre? It's hard to tell.

It was my own fault, really. I'd decided to watch OK! TV while reading a copy of OK! magazine. I think I got overloaded by it all. But one thing I did notice was that I was reading more than I was watching. I ended up being fascinated by Josie Gibson's Big Fat Gypsy Wedding photo shoot, leaving Kate Walsh and Matt Johnson babbling away in the background.

Of course, this being a Desmond publication, the photo shoot is to tell you that Gibson is a reporter on . . . yes, you guessed it, OK! TV. But even as someone who isn't the target audience of the mag, who couldn't really care less about celebrity culture and all the trashy awfulness therein, I found her tales of growing up in a traveller family (hence the giant pink dress and caravan) quite intriguing.

OK! TV, in comparison, is pretty shabby. Gibson is, by a bus ride, the best thing about it, chirping merrily away about celebrity tweets in that delightful Bristolian burr ("Shane Warne, he's a blancmange, in't he?"), but her segment was a rare moment that strayed beyond the otiose. The rest just makes you yearn for the understated subtlety and class of the show's predecessor, Live from Studio Five.

Besides, they're missing a trick. If they called it Daily Star Daily Express Sunday Express New! Magazine Star Magazine Daily Star on Sunday OK! TV, they'd be able to promote even more Northern & Shell goodies at one go. Surely it's only a matter of time.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.