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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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A Fox among the chickens: why chlorinated poultry is about more than what's on your plate

The trade minister thinks we're obsessed with chicken, but it's emblematic of bigger Brexit challenges.

What do EU nationals and chlorinated chickens have in common? Both have involuntarily been co-opted as bargaining chips in Britain’s exit from the European Union. And while their chances of being welcomed across our borders rely on vastly different factors, both are currently being dangled over the heads of those charged with negotiating a Brexit deal.

So how is it that hundreds of thousands of pimpled, plucked carcasses are the more attractive option? More so than a Polish national looking to work hard, pay their taxes and enjoy a life in Britain while contributing to the domestic economy?

Put simply, let the chickens cross the Atlantic, and get a better trade deal with the US – a country currently "led" by a protectionist president who has pledged huge tariffs on numerous imports including steel and cars, both of which are key exports from Britain to the States. However, alongside chickens the US could include the tempting carrot of passporting rights, so at least bankers will be safe. Thank. Goodness. 

British farmers won’t be, however, and that is one of the greatest risks from a flood of "Frankenfoods" washing across the Atlantic. 

For many individuals, the idea of chlorinated chicken is hard to stomach. Why is it done? To help prevent the spread of bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter. Does it work? From 2006-2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an average of 15.2 cases of salmonella per 100,000 people in the US (0.015 per cent) – earlier figures showed 0.006 per cent of cases resulted in hospitalisation. In 2013, the EU reported the level at 20.4 cases per 100,000, but figures from the Food Standards Agency showed only 0.003 per cent of UK cases resulted in hospitalisation, half of the US proportion.

Opponents of the practice also argue that washing chickens in chlorine is a safety net for lower hygiene standards and poorer animal welfare earlier along the line, a catch-all cover-up to ensure cheaper production costs. This is strongly denied by governing bodies and farmers alike (and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who reignited the debate) but all in all, it paints an unpalatable picture for those unaccustomed to America’s "big ag" ways.

But for the British farmer, imports of chicken roughly one fifth cheaper than domestic products (coupled with potential tariffs on exports to the EU) will put further pressure on an industry already working to tight margins, in which many participants make more money from soon-to-be-extinct EU subsidies than from agricultural income.

So how can British farmers compete? While technically soon free of EU "red tape" when it comes to welfare, environmental and hygiene regulations, if British farmers want to continue exporting to the EU, they will likely have to continue to comply with its stringent codes of practice. Up to 90 per cent of British beef and lamb exports reportedly go to the EU, while the figure is 70 per cent for pork. 

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths says that the UK poultry meat industry "stands committed to feeding the nation with nutritious food and any compromise on standards will not be tolerated", adding that it is a "matter of our reputation on the global stage.”

Brexiteer and former environment minister Andrea Leadsom has previously promised she would not lower animal welfare standards to secure new trade deals, but the present situation isn’t yet about moving forward, simply protecting what we already have.

One glimmer of hope may be the frozen food industry that, if exporting to the EU, would be unable to use imported US chicken in its products. This would ensure at least one market for British poultry farmers that wouldn't be at the mercy of depressed prices, resulting from a rushed trade deal cobbled together as an example of how well Britain can thrive outside the EU. 

An indication of quite how far outside the bloc some Brexiteers are aiming comes from Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's current "charm" offensive in Australasia. While simultaneously managing to offend Glaswegians, BoJo reaffirmed trading links with the region. Exports to New Zealand are currently worth approximately £1.25bn, with motor vehicles topping the list. Making the return trip, lamb and wine are the biggest imports, so it’s unlikely a robust trade deal in the South Pacific is going to radically improve British farmers’ lives. The same is true of their neighbours – Australia’s imports from Britain are topped by machinery and transport equipment (59 per cent of the total) and manufactured goods (26 per cent). 

Clearly keeping those trade corridors open is important, but it is hard to believe Brexit will provide a much-needed boon for British agriculture through the creation of thus far blocked export channels. Australia and New Zealand don’t need our beef, dairy or poultry. We need theirs.

Long haul exports and imports themselves also pose a bigger, longer term threat to food security through their impact on the environment. While beef and dairy farming is a large contributor to greenhouse gases, good stock management can also help remove atmospheric carbon dioxide. Jet engines cannot, and Britain’s skies are already close to maximum occupancy, with careful planning required to ensure appropriate growth.

Read more: Stephen Bush on why the chlorine chicken row is only the beginning

The global food production genie is out of the bottle, it won’t go back in – nor should it. Global food security relies on diversity, and countries working and trading together. But this needs to be balanced with sustainability – both in terms of supply and the environment. We will never return to the days of all local produce and allotments, but there is a happy medium between freeganism and shipping food produce halfway around the world to prove a point to Michel Barnier. 

If shoppers want a dragon fruit, it will have to be flown in. If they want a chicken, it can be produced down the road. If they want a chlorinated chicken – well, who does?