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 Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Staying in the EU would make it easier to tackle concerns about immigration, not less

Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

As Theresa May prepares to set out her latest plan for Brexit in Florence on Friday, those on all sides of the debate will wait to see if there are answers to fundamental questions about Britain’s future outside of the EU. Principle among those is how the UK immigration system will work. How can we respond to Leave voters’ concerns, while at the same time ensuring our economy isn’t badly damaged?

We must challenge the basic premise of the Vote Leave campaign: that dealing with public’s concern about immigration means we have to leave the EU and Single Market.

In fact the opposite is true. Our study into the options available to the UK shows that we are more likely to be able to restore faith in the system by staying within Europe and reforming free movement, than by leaving.

First, there are ways to exercise greater control over EU migration without needing to change the rules. It is not true that the current system of free movement is "unconditional", as recently claimed in a leaked Home Office paper. In fact, there is already considerable scope under existing EU rules to limit free movement.

EU rules state that in order to be given a right to reside, EU migrants must be able to demonstrate proof that they are either working, actively seeking work, or self-sufficient, otherwise they can be proactively removed after three months.

But unlike other continental systems, the UK has chosen not to operate a worker registration system for EU nationals and thus has no way of tracking where they are or what they’re doing. This could be changed tomorrow, if the government were so minded.

Other reforms being discussed at the highest levels within Europe would help deal with the sense that those coming to the UK drive down wages and conditions. The UK could make common cause with President Macron in France, who is pushing for reform of the so-called "Posted Workers Directive", so that companies seeking to bring in workers from abroad have to pay those workers at the same rate as local staff. It could also follow the advice of the TUC and implement domestic reforms of our labour market to prevent exploitation and undercutting.

Instead, the UK government has chosen to oppose reform of the Posted Workers Directive and made it clear that it has no interest in labour market reform.

Second, achieving more substantive change to free movement rules is not as implausible as often portrayed. Specifically, allowing member states to enact safeguards to slow the pace of change in local communities is not unrealistic. While the principle of free movement is a cornerstone of the European project, how it is applied in practice has evolved. And given that other countries, such as France, have expressed concern and called for reform, it is likely to evolve further.

The reforms to free movement negotiated by David Cameron in 2016 illustrate that the EU Commission can be realistic. Cameron’s agreement (which focused primarily on benefits) also provides an important legal and political precedent, with the Commission having agreed to introduce "safeguards" to respond to "situations of inflow of workers from other Member States of an exceptional magnitude over an extended period of time".

Similar precedents can be found within a number of other EU agreements, including the Acts of Accession of new Member States, the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement and the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The UK should seek a strengthened version of Cameron’s "emergency brake", which could be activated in the event of "exceptional inflows" from within the EU. We are not the first to argue this.

Of course some will say that it is unrealistic to expect the UK to be able to get more than Cameron achieved in 2016. But put yourself if in the shoes of the EU. If you believe in a project and want it to succeed, moral imperative is balanced with realism and it hardly needs pointing out that the political context has radically shifted since Cameron’s negotiation.

In contrast, a "hard Brexit" will not deliver the "control of our borders" that Brexiteers have promised. As our report makes clear, the hospitality, food, manufacturing and social care sectors heavily depend on EU workers. Given current employment rates, this means huge labour shortages.

These shortages cannot be wished away with vague assertions about "rejoining the world" by the ultra free-market Brexiteers. This is about looking after our elderly and putting food on our tables. If the UK leaves in April 2019, it is likely that the government will continue to want most categories of EU migration to continue. And whatever controls are introduced post-Brexit are unlikely to be enforced at the border (doing so would cause havoc, given our continued commitment to visa-free travel).  Instead we would be likely to see an upsurge in illegal migration from within the EU, with people arriving at the border as "visitors" but then staying on to seek work. This is likely to worsen problems around integration, whereby migrants come and go in large numbers, without putting down roots.

We can do this a different way. The important issues that most drive public concern about EU migration - lack of control, undercutting, pace of change - can be dealt with either within current rules or by seeking reform within the EU.

The harsh truth is that Brexit is not only unlikely to deliver the control people want, it may actually undermine people’s faith in the system even further.

Some will say that the entire line of argument contained here is dangerous, since it risks playing into an anti-immigrant narrative, rather than emphasising migration’s benefits. This is an argument for the ivory tower, not the real world.

There is a world of difference between pandering to prejudice and acknowledging that whilst EU migration has brought economic benefits to the UK, it has also created pressures, for example, relating to population churn within local communities.

The best way to secure public consent for free movement, in particular, and immigration in general, is to be clear about where those pressures manifest and find ways of dealing with them, consistent with keeping the UK within the EU.

This is neither an attempt at triangulation nor impractical idealism. It’s about making sure we understand the consequences of one of the biggest decisions this country has ever taken, and considering a different course.

Harvey Redgrave is a senior policy fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change and director of strategy at Crest Advisory.