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 is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

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 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle