Why J K Rowling needs to buy her own national newspaper

If the Potter series author owned her own news outlet, she could change the mood music of British politics.

Fascism, class war, ethnic cleansing: for a series of kids’ books about an orphan with magical powers, Harry Potter takes in some surprisingly dark themes.

One of which is the power of the media. The later books feature Rita Skeeter, a witch-cum-hack who specialises in hatchet jobs, who spearheads a government campaign to discredit our heroes by libelling them in the pages of the tabloid press. How these fantasy writers come up with this stuff, I’ve no idea.

British newspapers have few problems with orphans, of course, but they do use other groups as scapegoats for political reasons. Single mothers. Benefit claimants. Immigrants. J K Rowling has in the past been all three of those things, so it’s not surprising that their demonisation should bother her.

Today Rowling is president of Gingerbread, a charity which supports single parents, and on its website last week she wrote of the "slowly evaporating sense of self-esteem" she experienced while trying to raising her daughter single-handedly. In the article, she tells of the cringe of being described as "the unmarried mother", even while she was in earshot; of the corrosive effect being treated as a scrounger has on your morale; of her urge to punch a journalist who once demanded to know why she’d been sat at home writing when she should have been out looking for work. The Sky News story re-hashing this article tells us, with no apparent irony, that Rowling once "lived off state handouts".

This is not the first time that the author, now one of the richest people in Britain, has spoken up for the dignity the poor. As far back as 2001 she was talking about the scandal of child poverty, and in 2010 the Times published her blistering attack on David Cameron’s decision to offer tax breaks for those who stay married ("Nobody who has ever experienced the reality of poverty could say ‘it's not the money, it's the message’," she wrote in one much-quoted line. “When you are two pence short of a tin of baked beans, and your child is hungry, it is the money.") This is clearly something that matters to her.

If these articles have had any effect, though, it's a bloody subtle one. For every one of Rowling's interventions there have been hundreds of headlines slamming the needy as architects of their own fate, undeserving of anything other than opprobrium. (Worried I might be overstating this, I went to Google News to check. Here’s a headline, four hours old as I write: "'Council told me I'd be better off on benefits' says single mum". This from the Daily Express. Well, stone me, there's a surprise.) However rich she is, however respected, Rowling is just one woman. What can she do to fight a tidal wave of right-wing propaganda?

Well, there is one thing: buy her own newspaper.

With subs levels falling, and ad revenue going off a cliff, newspapers have been scrambling around for a new business model for about as long as anyone can remember. Some think it's paywalls; some, bundling subscriptions up with broadband access, or multi-channel TV. Others still are betting the farm on celebrity cellulite and funny cat gifs.

By far the most sustainable business model for print journalism, though, is the same as it ever was: be owned by someone very, very rich. It may not do much for your income, but it does at least take the pressure off.

The only problem with this model, from a certain point of view, is that rich people also tend to be right-wing people. As a breed they generally don’t like welfare, don’t like public services, and don’t like paying tax. This isn't the only reason so much of the press leans to the right, but you'd be pretty naive to imagine it wasn't a factor.

What socially conscious journalism needs, then, is a benefactor: a wealthy left-winger who's willing to step in and support it, not because they think it’ll make them any money but because they want to help shape the debate. By buying one of the more poisonous tabloids, this person could refashion its message about, oh I don’t know, single mothers and benefit claimants, perhaps? It’s not going to fix anything overnight, or possibly ever, but it should at least create a space for politicians to say that poverty is not just a symptom of moral deficiency.

Rowling, to her credit, is not as rich as she was: last year she dropped out of Forbes' billionaires list because she was paying her taxes and had given an estimated $160m to charity. (Forbes seemed very confused by this.) She remains, though, fantastically rich, and with more Potter-related movies in the offing she's likely to have a pretty decent income for some time to come. She could certainly afford to buy a newspaper; owning one is pretty unlikely to bankrupt her. And it would give her a far greater chance of changing the mood music of British politics than the occasional article ever could.

So, Ms Rowling – how about it?

 

J K Rowling attends a photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Image: Getty

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit