The new Murdoch, getting personal with Andrew Marr, and foodies in the East End

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Many youngish journalists in the newspaper industry, wondering if their job will still be there next year, may rejoice that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has taken over the Washington Post, where operating profits have more than halved in the past seven years. But the news alarms me.
 
Amazon is a threat to every form of retail life on the planet. It avoids taxes. It provides cloud services to the CIA. It allegedly treats warehouse workers with the severity of Victorian mill-owners and does all it can to discourage unionisation. Bezos has bought the Post personally rather than through Amazon but it surely isn’t, as some commentators have suggested, an act of philanthropy. There is nothing to prevent him from using Amazon’s platforms to promote and sell the Post and its digital offerings, potentially giving him almost as big a stranglehold over news as his company now has over book retailing.
 
As the Post’s Lydia DePillis suggests, he could put a print copy of the newspaper in every Amazon package, offering the paper’s advertisers a new audience of millions. He could make the Post the default app on every Kindle. He could feature Post videos on the Amazon Prime welcome screen. He could use the prestige from owning the Post brand to persuade politicians writing their memoirs to publish digitally with Amazon.
 
We worry about Rupert Murdoch acquiring too much control of media outlets. We should worry as much – probably more – about Bezos.
 

Reality bites

 
By the time you read this, the most awful slaughter may have occurred in Yemen or elsewhere in the Middle East. So I know that I am risking a large and messy quantity of egg over my face. Yet, so far, the only sources for the belief that an al-Qaeda attack is imminent –which has led to the closure of US embassies and advice to US nationals to leave Yemen – are the US National Security Agency and the Yemeni intelligence services.
 
Both have a clear vested interest in talking up threats. Perhaps it is very cynical of me (and, again, I know I may look foolish in a day or two) but I don’t think it is a coincidence that news of this “threat” has emerged so soon after Edward Snowden’s disclosures about NSA surveillance.
 
When intelligence services are criticised, they can defend themselves, to borrow the words of a George W Bush aide, by creating their own reality.
 

Road rage

 
One of the things that I like least about Conservative ministers is how they never miss an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with whingeing motorists who believe that the world should be organised so they can park 3,000 pounds of steel wherever and whenever they wish. (I write, of course, as a non-driver.)
 
Local councils, ministers insist, should not treat motorists as “cash cows”. The revenue from parking charges should be used for road maintenance and similar benefits for motorists, not other local services. Why? Should tobacco duty be used exclusively for the treatment of smokers’ ill-health?
 
Space to park cars without danger or inconvenience to others is a scarce resource. It should be priced according to what the market dictates. If people can’t or won’t pay, they should walk or take buses, with benefits to their health and everybody else’s.
 

Beat happening

 
Contemporary culture requires celebrities to discuss in public matters that they would once have hesitated to discuss with their closest friends. So Andrew Marr, in an interview with the Observer’s Robert McCrum, goes over the details not only of his stroke and its aftermath but also of his family life.
 
With Marr’s spouse, Jackie Ashley, on hand, McCrum finds “the moment to introduce a vexed question from the past”: an extramarital affair that Marr wrongly thought had resulted in him fathering a child. Mc- Crum reports the response thus: “ ‘If we need to go back over that stuff,’ says Ashley, resolute and phlegmatic, ‘our problems were from ten years ago. We have moved on anyway.’ A beat. ‘I suppose.’”
 
I like McCrum’s theatrical touch but for full dramatic effect, shouldn’t “a beat” have been accompanied by Marr illustrating the progress of his physio regime by delivering a firm boot to McCrum’s groin area?
 

Eastern promises

 
You wouldn’t expect to find a Michelinstarred restaurant in the historically workingclass district of Bethnal Green in east London, even though the area has been somewhat yuppified by its proximity to the City.
 
To celebrate our wedding anniversary, my wife and I decided to give Viajante (which means “traveller” in Portuguese), housed in the former town hall, a try. The restaurant serves a “blind-tasting menu”, which comprises a series of tiny portions, the only choice being between a menu of six, nine or 12 courses. The names and ingredients of each dish are disclosed when they are brought to your table.
 
The food turned out to be stunning and the waiters’ performance, over a meal lasting three hours, as absorbing as a ballet. Despite the eye-watering prices, the place was packed. This, I suppose, represents the future. While our staple diet comprises hamburgers, massproduced from stem cells, we occasionally escape to sample small, handcrafted dishes, presented with a flourish.
Jeff Bezos, who recently bought the Washington Post for $250million. Is he the new Murdoch? Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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