“All stand.” And the assembled barristers, court staff, journalists, PR consultants and solitary billionaire (we’ll get to him later) in Court 12 of the High Court jump to their feet. Then everyone’s back down again as Mr Justice Jay takes his position facing the murmuring courtroom. I’ve always found attending court rather like going to an aerobics class or Catholic mass – I’m always a good ten seconds behind on the movements, understand a fraction of the jargon and generally feel a little sweaty and nauseated. On this occasion there really should be little to be feeling anxious about. Or should there?
The Mirror is defending a libel claim brought against us by wheelbarrow/vacuum cleaner/Airwrap* entrepreneur James Dyson (*delete as applicable depending on your age). In January 2022, the Mirror columnist Brian Reade commented on Dyson’s status as a role model, referencing his announcement in 2019 that his company was moving its global headquarters or corporate headquarters (such semantics now lie at the heart of this case) to Singapore, in the context of Dyson being a leading proponent of Brexit. Dyson has argued that the article was vitriolic and unjustified.
Now, unlike contributors for titles such as, er, the New Statesman, the aim of a tabloid commentator is to make their point robustly, simply and quickly. I thought Reade had done just that in his column. He even got a vacuum cleaner gag in there – what’s not to like?
Quite a bit, it seems, for Sir James, who launched a £1m legal case on the back of a few words. It’s a big financial undertaking for organisations like Reach plc, which owns the Mirror, to fight cases such as these. But we have to defend what we believe is honest journalism. For regardless of what you think about Brexit or billionaires or Far East trade opportunities or hair dryers, a healthy democracy depends on journalists being able to air freely and honestly held opinions. We’ll see what the judge thinks some time before Christmas.
Down the Google hole
On the subject of journalistic freedoms, I am invited to take part in a panel event, chaired by the former BBC director-general Tony Hall, asking: “What kind of news provision does a successful modern democracy need?” There’s a lot of talk about the importance of plurality – particularly from the lovely woman from GB News – and the spokeswoman from the BBC is all about transparency and trust, as she should be.
Rozina Breen, the ever-impressive head of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, speaks about the need for greater consideration of who is deciding “The News”. Who is commissioning, who is creating, who is editing – and what, if anything, do these people understand about the public who need our news? Yet, amid this deep thinking, I can’t help but subscribe to what I’m sure would have been Abba’s assessment of media in a modern democracy. It’s all about “money, money, money”.
At present, the money is pretty hard to come by. Good journalism is under threat from the digital platforms that use our content, grow fat on the ad revenues and toy with us as they choose. Google and Facebook now take more than half of all global ad revenues. It’s harder and harder for media companies to get even a sliver of the pie which they have baked.
Holding power to account
Even worse, we are at the mercy of platform algorithm changes that can overnight downgrade readers’ ability to find us through online search. And, of course, fewer people reading stories means fewer readers seeing ads, which means less revenue, which means fewer journalists. When Birmingham City Council went bust back in October, Google ranked stories by foreign news outfits, whose journalists wouldn’t be able to find the city on a map, well above Birmingham Live, whose journalists have lived and worked in the city for decades. That cannot be right.
The Digital Markets Bill, intended to regulate competition in this area, is working its way through parliament. If successful, it could be transformative for the industry. It’s time to address the unfettered and unaccountable power of the tech platforms.
Terry the venerable
On Monday 27 November nearly every national print title paid tribute on its front pages to Terry Venables, the former England manager, who had died two days earlier. The Mirror’s splash was a picture of Venables, arms outstretched in front of a bank of photographers, alongside the headline “The Great Showman”.
For those of us who remember the glorious drama of Euro 96, in England, he was most certainly that.
[See also: My investigation into Russell Brand]
This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now