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: Getty
Show Hide image

On Brexit, David Cameron knows exactly what he's doing

It's not a dead cat - it's about disarming the Leave campaign. 

If you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the calculation behind David Cameron’s latest entry into the In-Out (or Remain-Leave in new money) battle. The Prime Minister has warned that were Britain to leave the European Union, the migrant camp at Calais – popularly known as “the Jungle” – could move to Britain. But Eurosceptic campaigners have angrily denounced the remarks, saying that there’s little chance of it happening either way.  

Who’s right? My colleague Henry Zeffman has written a handy explainer of the ins and outs of the row, but the short version is: the Eurosceptic campaigners are broadly right.

But the remarks are very far from a gaffe by Downing Street or Cameron, and they aren’t a “dead cat” strategy – where you say something offensive, prompting a debate about that instead of another, trickier issue – either.

Campaigners for Remain have long been aware that immigration remains their glass jaw. The line wheeled out by Cameron has been long-planned. Late last year, senior members of the In campaign discussed what they saw as the danger points for the campaign. The first was a renegotiation that managed to roll back workplace rights, imperilling the support of the Labour party and the trade unions was one – happily avoided by Cameron’s piecemeal deal.

That the deal would be raked over in the press is not considered a risk point. Stronger In has long known that its path to victory does not run through a sympathetic media. The expectation has long been that even substantial concessions would doubtless have been denounced by the Mail, Telegraph and Sun – and no-one seriously expected that Cameron would emerge with a transformative deal. Since well before the general election, the Prime Minister has been gradually scaling back his demands. The aim has always been to secure as many concessions as possible in order to get an In vote – but Downing Street’s focus has always been on the “as possible” part rather than the “securing concessions” bit.

Today’s row isn’t about deflecting attention from a less-than-stellar deal, but about defanging another “risk point” for the In campaign: border control.

Campaign strategists believe they can throw the issue into neutral by casting doubt on Leave’s ability to control borders any better. One top aide said: “Our line is this: if we vote to leave, the border moves from Calais to Dover, it’s that simple.” They are also keen to make more of the fact that Norway has equally high levels of migration from the European Union as the United Kingdom. While In will never “own” the issue of immigration, they believe they can make the battle sufficiently murky that voters will turn to the areas that favour a Remain vote – national security, economic stability, and keeping people in their jobs.

What the row exposes, rather than a Prime Minister under pressure is a politician who knows exactly what he’s doing – and just how vulnerable the lack of a serious heavyweight at the top makes the Leave campaign(s). Most people won't make a judgement based on reading up the minutinae of European treaties, but on a "sniff test" of which side they think is more trustworthy. It's not a fight about the facts - it's a fight about who is more trusted by the public: David Cameron, or Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling or Priti Patel? As one minister said to me: "I like Priti, but the idea that she can go against the PM as far as voters are concerned is ridiculous. Most people haven't heard of her." 

Leave finds itself in a position uncomfortably like that of Labour in the run-up to the election: with Cameron able to paint himself as the only option guaranteeing stability, against a chaotic and muddled alternative. Without a politician, a business figure or even a prominent celebrity who can provide credibility on the level of the Prime Minister, any row about whether or not Brexit increases the chances of more migrants on Britain’s doorsteps helps Remain – and Cameron. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.