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?