Why I was wrong about the Star and the Express

The Desmond empire's decision to embrace the Health Lottery has not calmed the papers' editorial pol

Back in March, a rather misguided but well-intentioned blogger wrote about Richard Desmond's plans for a health lottery. "It could raise a lot of money for charity and it could mark the end of the bad old days for the Express and the Star," wrote that fool, claiming that the philanthropic endeavour was aimed "with one eye on detoxifying his newspaper brands."

This idiot blundered on: "Pandering to Little Englanders every now and again might have done a good job in retaining a few hardcore readers for the Express and the Star, but that kind of tactic might become a hindrance." Oh, you have to wince.

The fool, if you haven't realised by now, was me. A month on from the launch of the Health Lottery in a rainbow-coloured vomit of excitement, has anything really changed in the Desmond empire? Have these newspapers become milder, less rabid, more measured, as they now share an umbrella with the beneficent health lotto project? Well, it's not looking tremendously promising. (The health lottery itself isn't looking tremendously promising either, but that's another story.)

I suppose the point I was making back in March was that it would be difficult to sell a message of positive, embracing, warm charity fun while at the same time selling a more divisive, cold, negative message about disliking foreigners. The lottery was launched at the end of September, with the Daily Express declaring it would "MAKE BRITAIN BETTER" and the Daily Star saying it was a "TONIC FOR BRITAIN". But did the content of the papers continue in such a positive vein? At first the signs seemed promising. The Express on September 29 led with news that there would be "PAY RISE JOY FOR MILLIONS". So far, so inoffensive. The Star said that Ed Miliband wanted to "BAN BIG BRO FUN", neatly mentioning Channel 5's flagship reality show. Cross-promotional as ever, and not entirely true, but not toxic. Not yet.

As October began, though, there were signs that the feelgood factor wouldn't last. "EU RAID ON OUR PENSIONS", boiled the Express. "£42M CHILD BENEFIT SENT ABROAD", grumbled the Sunday Express. "VICTORY IN BID TO QUIT EU", roared the Express, next to a photo of Simon Cowell, who was, wouldn't you know it, backing the Health Lottery (in a "FRENZY", according to the Star). A temporary bit of actual news intervened with the acquittal of tabloid favourite Amanda Knox (tastefully reported to be "HAUNTED BY MEREDITH'S GHOST", said the Star), and then the spleen returned.

The front page of the Express on October 14 proclaimed that "WORKERS ARE FIRED FOR BEING BRITISH", next to the beaming smile of early 1990s celebrity Donna Air (who was "backing the health lottery", shockingly enough). The headline might have led amateur readers to think that workers had been fired for being British, but a more thorough look at the words revealed it was a claim, made by an MP using parliamentary privilege, about a company and a forthcoming industrial tribunal, and not really quite as established a fact as it might at first have appeared.

In recent days, it's accelerated, with an Express "Crusade" relaunched on October 17 to "GET US OUT OF THE EU", a story saying "75% SAY QUIT THE EU NOW" (although the figures weren't quite that clear cut), "THE GREAT EU REVOLT" on October 24 and "SCANDAL OF EU BETRAYAL" on October 25. It took a somewhat more sinister turn with "GERMANY WARNS OF WAR IN EUROPE" on October 27, above a story which, you may be not entirely knocked down with a feather to learn, didn't exactly reflect Germany warning of a war in Europe. A day later, apparently, the FRENCH were sending "UNEMPLOYED TO BRITAIN ON CUT-PRICE TRAINS TO STEAL OUR JOBS." (And do what with them? Take them back to France? "Haha, you English fools, I have stolen your £6-an-hour job in the kitchen in Spud-u-like and am transporting it to Marseille!")

All those months ago, I had hoped that the arrival of the Health Lottery might spike the guns of the Express and Star a little, but I am not so sure it has. While the Star appears to have retreated from political front pages altogether for the time being, becoming more and more obsessed with celebrities (particularly female celebrities in their pants), the Express has ploughed the same old furrow. Those foreigners, stealing our jobs! Those Germans! War in Europe! Get us out now! Oh, and by the way, buy a lottery ticket - 21p from every pound goes to charity!

Whatever happens with the Health Lottery, it doesn't appear its presence will, after all, be a calming influence on the editorial policy of its papers. Someone somewhere must have reasoned that the anti-EU stories flog papers, and that's not going to stop anytime soon. It's always a shame to say you were wrong, but I think I was.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times