New Times,
New Thinking.

First Thoughts: National confusion, newspaper troubles and goodbye to queues at the checkout

Supermarket apps allow you to scan each item and pay for it instantly.  

By Peter Wilby

Nobody thought Boris Johnson was any good at detail. We did think he was good at clear, simple messages – or at least his cronies were. “Take back control.” “Get Brexit done.” “Stay at home. Save lives.” Now even that gift has deserted him. The American news broadcaster Edward R Murrow said Churchill mobilised the English language and sent it into battle. Yet in his television address on the evening of Sunday 10 May, Johnson mangled the language and sent it to cause national confusion. 

“We shall stay alert on the beaches.” “We shall control the enemy on landing grounds.” “We may be in a position to fight in some streets.” “If at all possible, we shall fight in the hills when it is safe to do so.” 

Churchill, supposedly Johnson’s role model, didn’t talk like that when he rallied the British after Dunkirk.

Forget about the world

Johnson was clear, though, about one thing. We shall have a “world-beating” testing system. But why does it need to be world-beating? We’re trying to beat a virus, aren’t we? Tests that actually work and provide speedy and accurate information would do. If Johnson and his ministers scaled down their preposterous nationalist rhetoric and concentrated on the job at hand, we and they would be better off. 

A terminal decline?

Are national newspapers, in decline for 25 years, now facing their long-predicted extinction? Print sales are down by at least 20 per cent, mainly because customers are no longer picking up copies at airports, stations and motorway services. Though most papers report growth in online visitors, they are still struggling to persuade readers to pay for access. 

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Meanwhile, with the economy at a standstill, analysts predict a 50 per cent fall in advertising revenue over the year. Nearly all papers have furloughed non-editorial staff and cut journalists’ pay. In an unusual outbreak of we’re-all-in-it-togetherness, senior executives and editors have taken the biggest pay cuts – 30 per cent for Guardian board members. 

Your papers need you 

Is any help at hand? Yes, but not from a source that most journalists would unreservedly welcome. The government is spending £35m with news brands on advertising coronavirus instructions, nearly five times what it spent in the whole of last year. From the beginning of this month, it abolished VAT on all digital publishing sales. And ministers have appealed to the public to buy newspapers. 

“A free country needs a free press,” said Robert Jenrick, the Housing Secretary. After all, a Tory government wouldn’t wish voters to get all their news from liberal elitists at the BBC.

The end of the queue

Also on the way out are notes and coins – since mid-March, I have used them only once, to pay the window cleaner. Will debit and credit cards follow? The other day, in the Marks & Spencer food store in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, I was surprised to find no checkout queue. The M&S app, which allows you to scan each item and pay for it instantly, had arrived, I realised. As the epidemic continues, expect such technology to spread rapidly.

That isn’t all. A few days before lockdown, the Bank of England published a consultation paper on introducing digital currency. This would enable it to create money in a non-physical form that eventually finds its way into “digital wallets” on our mobile phones, just as notes and coins eventually get into our purses and pockets. So, to pay the window cleaner, I would just transfer funds from my mobile to his.

Many people, particularly because of privacy concerns, won’t want to do this, despite banks’ and big retailers’ eagerness to get rid of dirty old cash, fiddly cards and costly staff. 

But imagine that the Chancellor, to kick-start the economy, offers everyone, as some economists recommend, a one-off sum of £500 – and says it will be paid only into digital wallets. 

Imagine, moreover, that the Bank of England, as its consultation paper suggests, pays interest on funds in your wallet. How many would still resist?

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This article appears in the 13 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Land of confusion