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O Mother, where art thou?

American bimonthly title Mother Jones shows that public-service journalism isn't dying.

On 23 September, the Guardian journalist David Leigh put forward a proposal to “save newspapers”: a £2-a-month levy on everyone with a broadband connection, to be “redistributed automatically to ‘news providers’ according to their share of UK online readership”. The £500m a year raised, he explained, would safeguard public-interest journalism, and stop the decline of print leading inexorably to an internet dominated by “the timid BBC on the one hand, and superficial junk on the other”.

Leigh’s plan received what are known euphemistically as “mixed reviews”: Press Gazette’s Dominic Ponsford called it “bonkers”, noting that the Mail and Sun would both collect large sums, even though they are already profitable. Others baulked at the idea of paying for content they had never asked for.

What no one disputed, though, was that if we believe that labourintensive, expensive investigative journalism is a public good, we need to think hard about how it will be funded in the future. Newspapers usually bundled together the highbrow and the low, and made buying them a reflection of who you were. (No one knew you skipped past the leader page straight to the racing results.) But the internet has broken that compact and removed the incentive to cross-subsidise the tough stuff with the fluff.

And yet – put away the blackedged hanky, because all is not lost. The past few weeks have shown that exactly that kind of journalism can survive in the marketplace and we don’t even need a broadband tax to pay for it.

You may not have heard of Mother Jones, but if you follow American politics, then you’ll have seen the fallout from its scoop. Addressing supporters, the presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said: “There are 47 per cent who are with [Obama], who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims” and who would “vote for him no matter what”. Mother Jones’s Washington bureau chief, David Corn, found the video online and beat the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim to track down its owner and verify its contents. It brought more than two million visitors to the magazine’s website in the first 12 hours of the story – double the number it would normally get in a month. Not bad for a tiny, independent magazine that has been declared dead several times – particularly when it was up against the HuffPo, which has the full corporate financial power of AOL behind it.

Heart of the Amazon

So what is Mother Jones? Founded in 1976 and named after a trade unionist and opponent of child labour, it is a bimonthly title dedicated to unfashionable causes and undercover investigations. In March this year, its reporter Mac McClelland wrote “I was a warehouse wage slave”, about an online-shipping company that sounded suspiciously like Amazon (it was not identified in her piece). The conditions experienced by the temporary workers were brutal: 12-hour stretches running around a cold, cavernous warehouse, with every trip meticulously timed through a hand-held scanner; lunch breaks of “29 minutes and 59 seconds”; limited access to the overcrowded toilets and constant reminders that “there’s 16 other people who want your job”.

At least the workers at the packing factory weren’t suffering the fate of those in “The spam factory’s dirty secret”, from the July 2011 issue. Mother Jones revealed a catalogue of abuses driven by our relentless demand for cheaper meat, summed up in the standfirst like this: “First, [the owner] gutted the union. Then it sped up the line. And when the pig-brain machine made workers sick, they got canned.”

Although Mother Jones enjoys First Amendment protection not available to British publications – and neither does it face our harsh libel laws – this sort of journalism is still costly to produce. The magazine is owned by the nonprofit Foundation for National Progress, and its work is partly funded through sales of the print magazine ($12 a year, circulation 240,000) and partly through a “Donate” button on its home page. Only a third of its revenue comes from advertising.

The Mother Jones model is not the only option, though. The highbrow US magazine the Atlantic has gambled its future on revenue from branded events: a recent New York Times story described its future as “digital first and last, with ancillary revenue from conferences”, the print product’s role being to “bring lustre to digital assets”. The New Republic, another rarefied and precariously placed publication, also seems likely to survive. It was bought in March by Chris Hughes, whose decision to share a room at college with Mark Zuckerberg means he has $700m of Facebook fortune to invest.

Here in Britain, the sales of Private Eye – which smuggles in much investigative work after the gossip and jokes –were up 10 per cent year on year in August. So even if David Leigh is right and newspapers soon can’t or won’t be able to do public-service journalism, the form isn’t dying.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Labour conference special

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.