What the hell is Waterstones doing?

Waterstones makes a deal with "the devil".

Why is Waterstones MD James Daunt, who once described Amazon as "a ruthless money-making devil",  joining with said devil in a massive deal?

The bookstore is now going to sell Amazon's Kindle, and "launch other Kindle digital services", refurbishing its stores with digital areas where readers can sit and browse.

Waterstones is yet to fully explain the move, simply saying that:

"The best digital readers, the Kindle family, will be married to the singular pleasures of browsing a curated bookshop."

But this shot at the e-book market seems to be aimed directly at Waterstone's own foot. Why invite the e-book into one of the few nooks which paper books still occupy? One of the pleasures of buying physical books is mooching around a bookshop, browsing, as opposed to the more prosaic digital experience. It might also be noted that Waterstones is doing away with the demographic who continue to buy from them simply because they haven't yet stumbled across e-books.

The deal remains wrapped in mystery. The day before it was announced, an interview with Daunt ran in the Guardian, in which he said Waterstones would soon be joining the e-book revolution, but oddly, that this would involve:

 ...persuading Waterstones customers to choose an e-reader (and ebooks) through a Waterstones-sponsored device. Daunt won't say when this will happen – "it's the bit we have to get right" – but it's imminent. "We'll be different from Amazon," he says, with characteristic ebullience, "and we'll be better."

What's going on?

The deal might have been a panicked one, motivated by Barnes and Noble's recent alliance with Microsoft in a $300m venture last month. This was clearly an excellent move for Barnes and Noble, as they have their own e-book reader and through Microsoft immediately recruited millions of customers. By moving onto Microsoft's turf, Barnes and Noble could only stand to gain.

In contrast, Waterstones, who has no e-book reader of its own, seems to be inviting Amazon to onto their turf. It feels like a bad move.

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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It's not WhatsApp that was at fault in the Westminster attacks. It's our prisons

Britain's criminal justice system neither deterred nor rehabilitated Khalid Masood, and may even have facilitated his radicalisation. 

The dust has settled, the evidence has been collected and the government has decided who is to blame for the attack on Westminster. That’s right, its WhatsApp and their end-to-end encryption of messages. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants tech companies to install a backdoor into messages like these that the government can then access.

There are a couple of problems here, not least that Adrian Russell aka Khalid Masood was known to the security services but considered to be low-risk. Even if the government had had the ability to gain entry to his WhatsApp, they wouldn’t have used it. Then there’s the fact that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just protect criminals and terrorists – it protects users from criminals and terrorists. Any backdoor will be vulnerable to attack, not only from our own government and foreign powers, but by non-state actors including fraudsters, and other terrorists.

(I’m parking, also, the question of whether these are powers that should be handed to any government in perpetuity, particularly one in a country like Britain’s, where near-unchecked power is handed to the executive as long as it has a parliamentary majority.)

But the biggest problem is that there is an obvious area where government policy failed in the case of Masood: Britain’s prisons system.

Masood acted alone though it’s not yet clear if he was merely inspired by international jihadism – that is, he read news reports, watched their videos on social media and came up with the plan himself – or he was “enabled” – that is, he sought out and received help on how to plan his attack from the self-styled Islamic State.

But what we know for certain is that he was, as is a recurring feature of the “radicalisation journey”, in possession of a string of minor convictions from 1982 to 2002 and that he served jail time. As the point of having prisons is surely to deter both would-be offenders and rehabilitate its current occupants so they don’t offend again, Masood’s act of terror is an open-and-shut case of failure in the prison system. Not only he did prison fail to prevent him committing further crimes, he went on to commit one very major crime.  That he appears to have been radicalised in prison only compounds the failure.

The sad thing is that not so very long ago a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice was thinking seriously about prison and re-offending. While there was room to critique some of Michael Gove’s solutions to that problem, they were all a hell of a lot better than “let’s ban WhatsApp”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.