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What’s new in Wetherspoon News? A close reading of the political magazine of our times

Someone’s gone and told the pub chain’s in-house publication about virtue signalling.

Wetherspoon News, a sort of in-flight magazine for a “flight” which consists of drinking cheap pints on your own while going absolutely nowhere at all, has long been an entertainingly idiosyncratic mix of light features of about award-winning toilets and angry polemic from the pub chain’s founder Tim Martin about VAT (ideally not having to pay it) or government advice on healthy levels of alcohol consumption (ideally not having to listen to it).

2016 was a pretty big year for the publication, available free in the company’s pubs. Not only did it celebrate its 25th anniversary, but it was of course the year of the EU referendum – something Martin has rather strong views about.

Not only were 200,000 Vote Leave beer mats ordered, but the summer edition of Wetherspoons News dedicated 15 pages to various shades of Brexit comment, including six pages of reprinted Daily Mail columns by everyone’s favourite Brexiteer MEP Daniel Hannan (“Dan the man”, comes Martin’s glowing word of approval). Plus a piece by Tony Benn, which is impressive given that he’d been dead for two years.


The Brexit issue

Martin presented his own arguments at length, which as well as the usual huffing about the supposedly undemocratic nature of the EU also include Wetherspoons not buying much European wine these days anyway, and the apparently negligible risk of France or Germany invading the UK upon the triggering of Article 50, which he appeared to believe was a serious concern of the Remain campaign.

As if the result of the referendum didn’t make the Wetherspoon News zeitgeisty enough, the latest edition contains a splendidly deranged rant by a pub landlord trainer Paul Chase, who’s heard of something called virtue signalling and is not prepared to let only vaguely understanding what it is prevent him from writing a few hundred words about why it is part of an evil plot to stop the honest British citizen from getting pissed up.


Paul Chase's op-ed

Virtue signalling is, in fairness, a bit of a nebulous concept, largely used by the deeply unpleasant in an attempt to discredit anyone doing anything nice ever: “I cannot imagine doing anything that isn’t self-serving, so therefore I cannot imagine anyone else doing it either.”

Here it is presented as a fashion statement: the UK’s Chief Medical Officer lowering recommended alcohol intake limits is compared to the trend of wearing a baseball cap. One signals being down with the apparently “pro-virtue” establishment, the other signals being down with saying “cowabunga”. Perhaps this starts to make more sense if you consume all 14 of your weekly allowed units in one go.


The latest copy of Wetherspoon News

It’s hard to determine what the readers – two million, according to the cover – of Wetherspoon News make of all this - the letters pages are full of glowing stuff along the lines of “Dear sir, I, my wife and our three large boys eat at Wetherspoons every day because it is so nice. Have you considered raising the prices because we would gladly pay double!”, presumably because you get 20 quid in beer tokens if they like your letter enough to print it.

But as big Tim points out in response to a rare negative letter begging him to stop banging on about Brexit: “Debate is the key to freedom and part of the democratic process.” Perhaps Wetherspoon News is the true heart of British democracy in 2017 after all. Hopefully Wetherspoons drinkers can look forward to reading someone from the beer trade’s hot take about fake news and alternative facts in the spring issue.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder