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
Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.