The Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News (which agreed in February to merge) are to seek a creditors’ voluntary liquidation – the process whereby the directors of a company wind up an insolvent organisation. This news feels very hard to process.
The Chronicle has been in existence since 1841 and is the oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper in the world. To put that in a personal context: when my great-great-grandfather arrived in the UK from eastern Europe in the 1880s, the British Jewish community’s newspaper was already close to half a century old. For many British Jews, even if you don’t share the paper’s politics, its cultural footprint and seeming ever-present nature makes the prospect that it might soon cease to exist near-unthinkable.
The nearest comparison I can make to a non-Jewish audience is that of London’s Evening Standard. If you have lived in the capital for a long time, the people first selling and now handing out copies of the Standard are such a consistent presence in the city that the idea of the paper not being there any more feels a little bit odd. Now imagine that if instead of the Standard just being part of the background, it’s also the major source for news of births, deaths and changing tides in your community. That is, both through its own efforts and by accident, a cultural touchstone for you, whether you are for or against it.
The loss is particularly traumatic because it comes so close to Passover, usually a time in which families come together to celebrate but in which people will instead be separated by the government’s anti-viral measures.
It also speaks to twin problems for the government. The first is the holes in Rishi Sunak’s economic package, and the difficulties that various small businesses and charities are having in accessing the funds. The second is that community newspapers are a vital tool for spreading public health messages. And the economic and political concerns of the JC, the country’s oldest ethnic minority newspaper, are in this instance a canary in the coal mine for the concerns of the rest of the country’s minority media outlets too.
We now know that ethnic minority Brits are more likely to be badly affected by Covid-19 than white ones. But we don’t know for certain if that is because of physical differences, or because ethnic minority Brits are more likely to be key workers, be that in the NHS or on public transport, and thus are more likely to get the disease in the first place. It could also be because of gaps in the government’s communications strategy, which mean that the correct public health messages are not being properly communicated to ethnic minority households. The government essentially has a communications strategy for news programmes and an advertising strategy for music radio: that means that the information provided on the BBC’s music radio has been ad hoc and driven by the BBC, which doesn’t have the government’s information on which messages best reach hard-to-contact groups.
One way that the government could pick up the slack is to increase its messaging through community newspapers and radio stations. But the pressures that have led the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper to go into liquidation – though the hope is that a way to ensure its survival will be found – are also being felt by other minority newspapers and radio stations; the JC is merely the most high-profile victim. Should others be forced to close, it will become harder still for the government’s messaging to reach everyone in the United Kingdom. A cultural tragedy for Britain’s ethnic minority communities might well deepen and prolong a public health tragedy.