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2 January 2019

First Thoughts: HMV’s inevitable decline, my predictions for 2019 and the curse of press vilification

The internet behemoths are essentially parasites, leeching their sales from what Marxists might call actually existing shops.

By Peter Wilby

The surprise is not that HMV has gone into administration but that, in the age of Amazon and Spotify, it has survived for so long. Yet its shops are rarely empty. The merit of high street stores is that you can wander into them and browse. Nearly all the laments for HMV recall the writer’s serendipitous discovery in one of its shops of some previously unknown artist. Now customers go home and order up what they’ve chosen, at the lowest possible cost, and preferably free, from the internet. Whether selling books, records or clothes, whether independents or chains, all the traditional high street names suffer in similar fashion.

The internet behemoths are essentially parasites, leeching their news from newspapers and many of their sales from what Marxists might call actually existing shops. In a just world, governments would force them to pay appropriate fees. It is one of the great political failures of our time that nobody has found a way even to extract significant taxes from them.

The prediction game

The Times columnist and Tory peer Daniel Finkelstein writes that his new year resolution is to remember at all times “that I don’t know what is about to happen”. When predicting the future, he promises, he will“provide a percentage probability of different outcomes”.

Following this admirable lead, here are my predictions for 2019. A version of Theresa May’s Brexit deal will, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, make it through the House of Commons. Probability: 89.684 per cent. May will still be PM and Tory leader this time next year: 92.592 per cent. John McDonnell will be Labour leader by the end of October: 43.333 recurring per cent. England will fail to win the World Cup in either cricket or rugby union: 78.927 per cent. Paul Dacre will return as Daily Mail editor. 2.409 per cent.

I arrived at these figures by using extensive data and a newly developed algorithm. No, of course not. I just invented them. But at least I look jolly clever and authoritative and nobody can accuse me of being wrong.

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A migrant non-crisis

More than 220 refugees/migrants (delete according to political preference) have tried to cross the Channel in small boats since the beginning of November. On Christmas Day, 40 were found on Kent beaches or rescued from the sea. The Home Secretary Sajid Javid declares a “major incident” and scuttles home from safari in Africa. Hysterical Tory MPs take to the airwaves. Whether they are worried about dead bodies washing up on the south coast, or live bodies roaming the lanes of Kent, is hard to tell.

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In 2017, Turkey hosted 3.5 million refugees, Pakistan (from which Javid’s parents hailed) 1.4 million, Germany 970,400 and Lebanon 998,900 or one in six of its population. In 2015, 900,000 refugees/migrants arrived in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean by boat, 10,000 of them in Greece on one day. In 2018, Spain took nearly 60,000. Many of these desperate people are accommodated in squalid camps. As a compassionate country, we would regard that as an affront to human dignity. Or is the affront to our aesthetic sensibilities? As the exam questions say, discuss – with comparative references to rough sleepers on city streets.

The press drones on

After the pre-Christmas closure of Gatwick because of drones being flown over the airport, a couple from nearby Crawley were arrested. The Mail on Sunday (and some other newspapers) named them and asked “Are these the morons who ruined Christmas?” The answer to questions in newspaper headlines is nearly always “no”. But most readers wouldn’t even register the question mark. The couple were released without charge shortly afterwards. Meanwhile, their personal details had been widely publicised and parents, former partners, employers and friends interviewed at length.

The couple, lawyers say, could sue as the retired English teacher Christopher Jefferies did successfully after he was arrested in 2010 for the murder of Joanna Yeates and falsely described as “a peeping Tom”. He too was released without charge. But why should people have to sue? Shouldn’t they be protected from this kind of press vilification – even more so if they are charged, since what amounts to character assassination prejudices their chances of a fair trial?

If such coverage were regulated, editors argue, it would infringe press freedom. But the freedom to call innocent people morons or peeping Toms is not worth preserving. The press should be free to publish names and photographs, which may prompt members of the public to come forward with evidence of guilt or innocence. It should, however, stick to simple facts and refrain from embellishing them with adjectives.

Memories of a mentor

To the Savile Club in London for a celebration of the life of my former colleague Eric Clark, a formidable investigative journalist who died a few weeks before Christmas at 81. When I joined the Observer in 1968, with no experience of journalism except on a student newspaper, Clark was given the task of training me. I now remember little of his instruction beyond the advice to use a stronger deodorant in the office but, without his kindly guidance, my journalistic career might not have lasted more than a few months.

Years later, in his book The Real Toy Story, he exposed the toy industry and how it deliberately turned toys into badges of status and stifled creative play. While researching, he asked me, by then New Statesman editor, to grant him accreditation to attend a US reception held by the industry’s top people. I readily agreed. During the reception, a British executive walked up to Clark, peering at his lapel badge. “That’s funny,” he said. “In my country we’ve got a magazine of the same name. But they wouldn’t get in here. They’re all communists.” 

This article appears in the 02 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions