When a deaf ear is an editor's best friend


I have been thinking about the relations between editors and newspaper proprietors, and you will know why. The owner of the New Statesman is Geoffrey Robinson, the much-troubled Paymaster-General. (The proverbial returnees from desert islands will find a brief resume of his troubles on page 5.) Robinson, whom I have met no more than half a dozen times, is the most hands-off proprietor imaginable. In my five months as editor he has not issued a single editorial instruction - and since, as a minister, he is required to put his interests in a blind trust, he cannot properly do so. But neither did he issue any orders to my predecessor when he (Robinson) was still in opposition. Quite possibly, I could publish a ringing denunciation of his behaviour and continue undisturbed in my present position.

I shall not do so, however, for a very simple reason: any criticism whatever in the pages of the NS would acquire a significance quite out of proportion to our circulation or influence. You can imagine the headlines and the Tory glee: even the Paymaster-General's own paper, they would chortle, cannot support him. Equally, I shall not publish any defence of Robinson because it would be assumed that I had done it on his orders. The dailies, indeed, already assume a level of manipulation that would require our owner to be almost constantly in the office. For example, last week's issue, according to Londoner's Diary in the Evening Standard, "dismisses the notion that Tony Blair is a control freak" because Robinson wants to persuade the Prime Minister not to sack him. A month or so ago, the Times diary suggested we had run a profile of that historic left rendezvous, the Gay Hussar restaurant, because Robinson was thinking of buying it. I have been around long enough to know that most Fleet Street diaries nowadays are like bad dinner-party conversations - ill-informed, prejudiced and boring - and that in any event these are supposed to be harmless jokes. My own joke, in that case, is that journalists on the Evening Standard and the Times are so accustomed to being told what to write that they cannot conceive of the existence of independent journalism.

Which brings me to the wider question of the relations between owners and editors. The conventional wisdom argues that newspapers are best run by trusts, such as the one that oversees the Guardian, or by boards accountable to shareholders, as was the Independent at its launch. The newspaper company where one man - a Conrad Black or a Rupert Murdoch - has a controlling interest is thought to be a Bad Thing. And certainly I agree about Murdoch, mainly because his business interests are so wide as to inhibit straight reporting on subjects as diverse as the Chinese government, Hollywood films and Manchester United.

But it need not be like that. Roy Thomson, who owned the Sunday Times until his death in 1976 and presided over its golden age under Denis Hamilton and Harold Evans, had extensive business interests - in package holidays and North Sea oil, for example. Yet he never complained if those interests were damaged, as they sometimes were, by Sunday Times reporting. Under Thomson the Sunday Times flourished far more than the Independent and its Sunday sister did under the Mirror Group, a shareholder company, in the 1990s. David Montgomery, the Mirror Group's chief executive, never dictated political content - or even, so far as I could detect when I edited the Sunday paper, read the leaders or the political comment. But in obedience to the chronic short-termism of British shareholders, he cut budgets to the extent that the papers' independence became pointless.

That showed the weakness of a shareholder company: it put profit before long-term editorial health. Are there also hidden weaknesses in trusts? Not as such, perhaps. Yet the Observer, when I worked there from 1968 to 1975, seemed strangely inhibited. It was run by a trust but, in effect, David Astor was both editor and proprietor. Since he was independently wealthy and was also just about the most truly liberal-minded man I have ever met, it ought to have been an ideal arrangement. But the Observer was vulnerable to a special kind of pressure: from the liberal establishment, comprising the BBC, the London School of Economics, the Race Relations Board and the like. It was not that Astor always gave way to pressure - sometimes he did, more often he didn't - but that members of the liberal establishment would confidently threaten an unco-operative reporter with a word in his ear. A reporter knew that Astor, the most courteous of men, would listen and that sometimes he would be inclined to accept the complainants' version of events because they were, well, gentlemen like him.

And that is and always will be the biggest threat to independent journalism: friendship, cronyism, club membership, a shared school or college or class background. The Express is now, in some ways, a less independent paper than it was under Lord Beaverbrook (who also, incidentally, held ministerial office while owning a paper, but never lost his taste for mischief) because its proprietor, Lord Hollick, seems too friendly with certain sections of new Labour.

I used to think that some forms of press ownership were better than others; now, I'm not so sure. Everything depends on individuals, on whether the people who run newspapers really want to be bloody-minded on behalf of their readers. I cannot speak for Geoffrey Robinson, but my own broad rule is not to join clubs, to attend parties only sparingly and to reject all invitations to reunions. I am also, as most of London knows, rather deaf. So if you were planning a quiet word in my ear, forget it.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.