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21 November 2017

The right loves free markets, except when they hurt the Daily Mail

No, not like that. 

By Jonn Elledge

There’s a certain type of online right-winger who is a great believer in free markets, right up until the point it looks like they might be about to hurt something they like. At that point, decent, sensible companies are supposed to ignore the voice of the consumer and just do what those online right-wingers want them to do.

Such people have been much in evidence this week, because of a row involving (I can’t believe it’s come to this, but there we are) Paperchase, purveyor of cutesy stationery to the masses, and a promotion in everyone’s favourite hate-stained chip paper the Daily Mail. Here’s Reaction’s Iain Martin now. Mind your head as those toys fly past:

Some background on this. Last Saturday, Paperchase offered two rolls of wrapping paper (regular retail price: £4.75!) free with every copy of the paper. You can see the appeal of such a promotion: the Mail gets a few more sales; Paperchase get a flood of people through the doors of their shops, where they will presumably remember that it’s nearly Christmas and buy a load more stuff. Everybody’s happy, right?

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Well, no, not everybody. One organisation that wasn’t happy was Stop Funding Hate, an online pressure group which exists to persuade advertisers not to give their money to newspapers which make their dough saying nasty things about women, gay people, Muslims and so forth.

On Saturday it pointed out that Paperchase was promoting itself in a newspaper which had recently been laying into trans people, and got a few hundred retweets. Six hours later Paperchase decided that on balance it didn’t like the Daily Mail after all and this happened:

Then there was a backlash to the backlash, and that’s roughly where we came in.

What is the right’s objection to the Paperchase statement? Martin has claimed that he’s simply opposed to putting papers out of business (which, fair enough, I too like being able to earn money to buy things). But others seem to be making a slightly different argument: that Paperchase is giving in to an army of hysterical lefty remoaners, who don’t even think political correctness has gone made and probably like quinoa. Stop Funding Hate is interfering in the operation of the market for its own, wicked, hate-stopping ends. It’s a perfect, worked example of that meme you sometimes spot on the internets. Markets should respond to consumer demand. No, not like that.

There are two problems with the right’s hysterical reaction to all this, which is still, somehow, in full swing three days after the event. One is that it’s not clear that the Paperchase damage limitation exercise consisted of anything but that one tweet. That promotion may very well have been the sum total of its relationship with the Daily Mail. If it never works with the paper again, then we can assume that last Saturday it had a revelation about its responsibilities not to throw cash at newspapers which have done more damage to the body politic than the Black Death ever managed, but we won’t know that for sure for some time, possibly not until the Earth dies in a ball of flame.

The other problem is: this is exactly what you lot normally think markets are supposed to do. Those people who dont like the Daily Mail are not some kind of outside agitators: theyre potential customers.

And a company that pulled in revenues of £100m in 2015 is not likely to change its behaviour because of a few retweets, unless it believes they represent some wider feeling. If it apologised for the Daily Mail promotion, it’s because it genuinely believes it was in danger of losing sales in the run up to Christmas – which, without being an expert in the stationery market, I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess is its most profitable time of the year. It may have been wrong about that, or at least exaggerating the danger, but nonetheless, its motivation is less likely to have been politics than it is to have been cold, hard cash. 

Sharing information about a company’s actions and business relationships isn’t some corruption of free market forces: it’s a sign that the left is making use of them. Those politically correct, anti-Brexit, quinoa-munching lefties have every right to spend their money where they like, and to boycott any retailer that financially supports a newspaper whose values they despise. They have just as much right to persuade their friends to do the same. And Paperchase has every right to look at its bottom line and decide that, actually, the angry online left market is worth enough to them to make it a good idea to issue an apology.

This is exactly how free markets are supposed to work: consumers make choices, providers try to meet them, and those that don’t manage it go out of business. So why doesn’t the free market right approve? Why are they not delighted that the left has learned to love market forces?

Perhaps they’re a lot less keen on free market capitalism than they like to pretend – that they’re a lot less into markets red in tooth and claw that they are into right-wing tabloids.

Still, it’s a free country, and if the right don’t like Paperchase after this episode, they’re welcome to vote with their wallets. WH Smith will be delighted.

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