But will it work?

“We think paywalls are essential, because we think giving away content for free, particularly if consumers value that content, makes no sense. Consumers have to pay for content they value.”

Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP

The Herald and Sunday Herald are two of Scotland’s leading quality news outlets but when it comes to turning a profit, they are at the mercy of the same dire advertising market and readership trends facing every other news group in Europe and the United States.

So the announcement that the heraldscotland.com site, which integrates content from the two titles, is to go behind a paywall was hardly surprising.

In the dim and distant past (well, two-and-a-half years ago), I freelanced at the Herald and Sunday Herald, both as a print reporter and a multimedia journalist. They’re good papers, with a small but loyal readership, and I retain a fondness for the ability of their (integrated) editorial and production staff to put out solid (and in the case of the Sunday Herald, well-designed) papers on a string-and-buttons budget.

The new partial paywall, based on the metered access model most prominently (and contentiously) employed by the New York Times, will allow users free access to ten articles over a four-week period followed by charges for further usage: £1 for the initial month then £2.99 for each month thereafter. Print subscribers will enjoy free access.

But will it work?

The Times‘s paywall has defied many of its critics to become a subscription success, with upwards of 100,000 users paying £2 every week to get their fix of the daily title and its sister title, the Sunday Times. Research shows that the site – thetimes.co.uk – lags at the bottom of the league table for social media links. A ten-week Searchmetrics study found that the free-access guardian.co.uk enjoyed 2,587,258 links per week to its content on Twitter and Facebook, whereas thetimes.co.uk managed a paltry 256. Still, the Times has never made a profit for News International and the estimated £10.4million annual haul from subscriptions, while decidedly modest, is a fair exchange for loss of social media clout. Worst of all, content doesn’t appear in search engine results. However, some commentators have argued that News International’s strategy is to build relationships with an elite customer base, gathering valuable marketing data which can then be deployed profitably elsewhere within News Corporation.

The modest success of the Times‘s subscription model is thanks to the site’s effective marketing as a niche consumer product (foreign news, court and social reporting, business analysis) and a distinctive platform for elite discourses (CommentCentral). The user is paying for high-end content, industry-leading information, and the social capital accrued through membership of a community of leading newsmakers, policymakers, thinkers, and entrepreneurs. Put simply, you subscribe to thetimes.co.uk because you are the sort of person who subscribes to thetimes.co.uk.

The Herald‘s USP is more difficult to ascertain. While heraldscotland.com boasts an impressive, if politically monochromatic, rollcall of writers – Ian Bell, Ruth Wishart, Iain Macwhirter – it is unclear if their talents will be enough to convince people to part with their money. Of course, there is the possibility that the site will become a significantly different product from its present form. Less reliance on PA, more ‘written’ news pieces, exclusive interviews, specialisation in one area (like sports commentary, financial analysis, or arts and entertainment), more and better quality video content. All of these would be welcome and could help heraldscotland.com craft a niche in Scottish digital media – a platform for in-depth quality journalism and opinion with exclusive content crafted to the preferences of key demographic profiles.

I am a digital optimist and believe newspapers can and must thrive in the new media age. But success requires targeted evidence-led investment, the abandoning of outmoded thinking, and recognition that digital-first strategies are not commercialist barbarism but key to ensuring the survival – and, ideally, the thriving – of journalism and current affairs writing in the 21st century.

Paywalls are no panacea; many argue they aren’t even a sticking plaster. Still, they are a feasible first step to making journalism profitable. Sir Martin is right: giving away news for free is commercial lunacy, akin to Starbucks handing out lattes for free then wondering why sales are down. The New York Times‘s paywall has proved profitable. If done right, the Herald‘s paywall could – on a much smaller scale – prove financially beneficial too, thus helping to secure the future of an historic Scottish media institution that deserves to survive and flourish.

To butcher CP Scott, ‘Comment is free, but a sustainable business model is sacred’.

Feature image © Elliott Brown by Creative Commons 2.0

Israelophobia – the ‘new’ old prejudice

Something is rotten in the modern Left.

An unhealthy segment of what likes to call itself the ‘progressive movement’ increasingly loses its mind when it comes to the subject of Israel. These people long ago allowed their objection to certain Israeli government policies to calcify into an irrational hatred of the entire State of Israel. What we’ve seen in the last few years, though, is something different. Left-wingers who have dedicated their lives to the causes of equality and anti-racism have been seduced by a shrill and extreme form of anti-Zionism that skirts the boundaries of antisemitism when it’s not hurtling right into the heart of the oldest hatred.

Of course, criticising Israel, even in forceful terms, is not antisemitic but when the Left turns every ill-advised Israeli government action or policy into ‘genocide‘, ‘apartheid‘, or, repellently, a form of ‘Nazism’ – and maintains near radio silence on genuine human rights-abusing regimes in Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Russia, China, Syria, and the rest – we are justified in asking why the Jewish State is singled out for disproportionate opprobrium.

Ezra Pound, himself a Jew-hater and Nazi-sympathiser, came to regret his ‘stupid suburban prejudice of anti-Semitism’. Today, however, we are seeing the emergence of a stupid metropolitan prejudice, the polite bigotry of people who call themselves liberals and who are far from the socio-economic and educational profile of the tattooed skinhead hitherto associated with anti-Jewish sentiments. And because their contempt is directed at a nation-state, one that is unapologetically patriotic, pro-Western, and defies the fashionable theories of the post-1960s intelligentsia, these liberals consider their rhetoric not prejudicial but political – and progressive at that.

The latest episode came last week in the form of extraordinary comments from a Labour MP. Paul Flynn, MP for Newport West, challenged the appointment of Matthew Gould, Britain’s first Jewish ambassador to Israel, on the grounds that Gould’s Jewish heritage meant his loyalty to the UK was in question.

The row began during a fractious hearing of the House of Commons Public Administration Committee at which outgoing civil service head Sir Gus O’Donnell was giving evidence on his role and its functions. Flynn used the opportunity to question O’Donnell on reports that Gould, while serving in Iran, had held a meeting with former Defence Secretary Liam Fox and his unofficial, fake-business-card-wielding adviser Adam Werrity.

For Flynn, this was evidence that those dastardly ‘neo-cons’ were up to their old tricks ‘plotting a war in Iran’. He explained: ‘I do not normally fall for conspiracy theories, but the ambassador has proclaimed himself to be a Zionist and he has previously served in Iran’.

The Jewish Chronicle’s brilliant political editor Martin Bright evidently smelled a rat at the talk of neocons and Zionists and sinister plots for power and influence. He asked Flynn to explain his remarks. The Labour MP picked up a shovel. A very large shovel.

He told Bright that, ‘In the past there hasn’t been a Jewish ambassador to Israel and I think that is a good decision – to avoid the accusation that they have gone native.’

Gone native.

Britain’s ambassador to Israel, he added, should instead be ‘someone with roots in the UK [who] can’t be accused of having Jewish loyalty’.

Jewish loyalty.

He reiterated his concern that ‘neo-cons and war-mongers’ were conspiring to launch a war against Iran.

Neocons. (The New York Times’ David Brooks once quipped, ‘con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish’.’)

Now half-way to Australia and still digging, Flynn added that he’d feel the same way about others from a ‘foreign’ background and pointed to Labour MP Denis MacShane, who is of Polish descent. ‘Imagine Denis MacShane as ambassador to Poland? Heaven forbid,’ he explained.

His remarks were swiftly rebuked by Middle East Minister Alistair Burt as well as fellow Labour MPs Douglas Alexander, Louise Ellman, and Denis MacShane.

The EU Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia’s definition of antisemitism includes this line: ‘Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nation.’

Does all this mean Flynn is an antisemite? Tory MP Robert Halfon, who is also Jewish and was identified by Flynn as one of the ‘neocon’ plotters, says no. Rather, Flynn is merely ‘deeply wrong about the British Ambassador to Israel and wrong about so-called ‘neo-conservative’ conspiracies’.

However, Flynn’s outburst speaks to an ever more prevalent phenomenon of left-wingers indulging in questionable rhetoric in their attacks on Israel.

Ahead of the 2010 election, (now former) Labour MP and chair of Labour Friends of Palestine Martin Linton, told Palestinian lobby group Friends of Al-Aqsa that there was an ‘attempt by Israelis and by pro-Israelis to influence the election’. He explained, invoking classic antisemitic imagery, that ‘[t]here are long tentacles of Israel in this country who are funding election campaigns and putting money into the British political system for their own ends.’

Former Labour MP, and darling of the Left, Tam Dalyell claimed in 2003 that Tony Blair was being ‘unduly influenced by a cabal of Jewish advisers’ and named Lord Levy, Peter Mandelson, and Jack Straw as evidence.

Labour stalwart, and the party’s candidate for Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone has a record of outrageous remarks. In 2006, he told Jewish Evening Standard reporter Oliver Finegold that he was ‘just like a concentration camp guard’. He told two Iraqi-Jewish businessmen, Simon and David Reuben, that ‘They should go back to Iran and try their luck with the ayatollahs, if they don’t like the planning regime or my approach.’

Then this gem from 2007:

If a young Jewish boy in this country goes and joins the Israeli army, and ends up killing many Palestinians in operations and can come back, that is wholly legitimate. But for a young Muslim boy in this country, who might think: I want to defend my Palestinian brothers and sisters and gets involved, he is branded as a terrorist. And I think it is this that has infected the attitude about how we deal with these problems.

Not to be pedantic but British Jews don’t serve in the Israel Defence Forces, Israelis do. The idea that British Jews go to Israel, fight in the Israeli army, kill Palestinians, and come back to the UK, as if they’ve just been on a gap year, is a mad fantasy that exists only inside Livingstone’s brain.

The Lib Dems aren’t immune. After musing on becoming a suicide bomber, and claiming that a shadowy ‘pro-Israeli lobby’ has its ‘financial grips’ on the Lib Dems, Baroness Jenny Tonge excelled herself when she demanded an official investigation into whether Israeli army medics helping with the relief effort in Haiti were actually there to steal organs from earthquake victims.

The Left-liberal media has dodgy form too. The New Statesman published a 2002 investigation on the ‘Zionist lobby’ and its influence on the UK with a cover depicting a huge golden Star of David piercing the Union Flag and the headline ‘A kosher conspiracy?’ (see above). The Independent once ran a cartoon depicting Ariel Sharon as a monstrous giant eating a Palestinian baby, an indisputable replication of the ancient blood libel.

The Guardian published a cartoon during the Lebanon-Israel war showing a Palestinian boy being pummelled by a giant fist inside a knuckleduster studded with blood-soaked Stars of David. Oxford don and BBC favourite Tom Paulin, who calls the Israeli army the ‘Zionist SS’, told an Egyptian newspaper what he’d like to see happen to Israelis living in settlements on the West Bank: ‘They should be shot dead. I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them.’ He continues to be invited on the BBC as a cultural commentator.

Ben Cohen has written about the secret history of antisemitism on the British Left. However, I think antisemitism and even ‘new antisemitism’ fail to capture the politics of left-wing anti-Israelism. It’s probably safe to assume that people like Linton, Dalyell, Livingstone, Paulin, and even Flynn do not consider themselves antisemitic – they would balk at the label no doubt. Of course, they’re right. In the classical sense of the term – irrational hatred of Jews as a racial or religious group and desire to exert power over them or deny them equality and fair treatment – they are not antisemitic.

What’s at work here is a new ideology. I call it ‘Israelophobia’, a contemporary manifestation of anti-Zionism that blurs the boundaries between far-Left and far-Right politics, permitting liberals to share a platform with radical Islamists and antisemites. Hatred of Israel, often based on limited knowledge or a selective perspective on the Middle East, becomes all-consuming and takes precedence over other concerns, including the normal ethics of political association.

Israel is elevated from just another state to a wicked malefactor of almost mythical proportions. When you anathematise your enemy thus there are no longer any limits, no red lines, nothing that can’t be thought or said or done. Conspiracy theories about powerful ‘lobbies’, financial influence, media manipulation, once a staple of antisemitic discourses, can be repackaged as fact – just as long as ‘Jewish’ is replaced with the more prophylactic ‘Zionist’.

Israelophobia, in short, is a form of demonisation, dehumanisation, and delegitimisation of the Jewish State that draws, often unwittingly, on the rhetoric and imagery of earlier forms of demonisation, dehumanisation, and delegitimisation of the Jewish people.

And it is overwhelmingly a prejudice of the modern Left: political activists, university campuses, and media outlets that are in every other way impeccably progressive. Smart and decent left-wingers, including Rob MarchantNick Cohen, and David Aaronovitch, have recognised the worryingly unprogressive developments in progressive politics. They are crucial to any fightback by the sensible Left but they are in the minority of the liberal commentariat who are mostly ignorant of the situation – or don’t want to know.

Israel is not perfect. No state is. But its detractors are losing their sense of proportion and their claim to the ‘progressive’ label in their disturbing journey into the dark heart of Israelophobia.

Feature image © Takver by Creative Commons 2.0

The Republican Party and the credibility gap

In the screenwriting business, the toughest challenge is pushing plot: writing the expositional dialogue that drives the story forward and keeps the audience up to speed.

It’s a thankless task: if the dialogue is too hokey, the audience will hiss; too subtle, and you risk leaving people behind. Worst of all is the scrutiny it attracts. Exposition freezes the action and the viewer has nothing to focus on save the words being spoken, so they’d better be up to scratch. Credibility is everything.

At this point in the US electoral cycle, the Republican candidates for President are pushing plot. The nation is facing the most crippling financial crisis since the 1930s (economists, in unguarded moments, intimate that it might even be worse), Americans are losing their jobs and their homes, and no one knows (not really, not honestly) how to turn things around. Unfortunately for Republicans, the recession hit in the eleventh hour of the Bush administration, which GOP mythology told us had solved America’s economic problems with the fiscal silver bullet of tax cuts. As if this wasn’t enough to be getting on with, Republicans find themselves in opposition with a Democrat President pouring a pocketful of nickels into the policy jukebox and replaying all the old liberal favourites, ‘Tax and Spend Two-Step’, ‘Big Government Blues’, and ‘That Free Market, She Done Me Wrong’.

Against this backdrop, Republicans need what political consultants call a ‘narrative’. They need to use this period before the election kicks off proper to push their exposition explaining what went wrong and what they want to do to get things back on track. Americans don’t want empathy. They don’t care whether a candidate goes to church or goes huntin’ or what they did in the Vietnam War. They’re not looking for someone to have a beer with. They want answers. Ideas. Solutions. They want a vision but a vision with trajectory: it’s not enough to say ‘America’s best days lie ahead’. Voters want to hear ‘America can get back on the road to success and here’s how we’re going to do it’.

Republicans should be honing their plot. Financial institutions, with the tacit encouragement of government, gave out too much credit. Individuals, with the tacit encouragement of financial institutions and government, spent too much money that they didn’t have. Government, with the not-so-tacit encouragement of practically everyone, spent vast sums while pretending it could do so without raising taxes. All three fantasies collided when the credit bubble burst in 2008. Now the economy is paying the price of the shared delusion of easy credit, booming entitlement programs, and 90%-mortgages-for-all. Now is the time to return America to fiscal responsibility, reducing the size of government but doing so in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the unemployment numbers.

This used to be easy for Republicans. Economic centrism was their métier. Democrats clung to abstruse theories while the GOP took the more measured, suck-it-and-see approach. To the casual observer of the Republican primary process, particularly the televised intellectual circuses that constitute the debates, the GOP has forgotten its role as the voice of fiscal pragmatism. This is why the expositional dialogue coming from most of the candidates isn’t working. It might please the hardcore fans but the mainstream audience are walking out and asking for their money back.

The top billings are as guilty of this as the walk-on roles. When a crank like Ron Paul compares the Federal Reserve to drug addiction, advocates eliminating the income tax (and replacing it with nothing), and shuttering a roster of basic programs Americans rely upon, the average voter rolls his eyes and says ‘Ron Who?’ When poll-leading contenders want to end all federal student loans or  can’t remember which agencies they’d abolish, Mr and Mrs Swing Voter head for the exits.

Glib soundbites aren’t going to cut it (cf. Herman Cain’s 9-9-9) and nor is Fannie and Freddie-bashing (I yield the floor to the Gentlewoman from Minnesota) or a hankering for the salad days of 2004 when pushing social issues translated into a ten point lead (Rick whatever-you-do-don’t-Google-his-surname Santorum).

With a very few exceptions (so few, one can briskly name them: Romney, Huntsman, Johnson), the current GOP field is a line-up of has-beens, never-weres, and dear-God-anyone-buts; a retinue of dogmatists; a demolition squad of political reality; a support group for the economically illiterate; an audition for the next big hire at Fox News; a Hillsdale undergraduate seminar group that clearly hasn’t done the reading.

Contrary to what people like David Frum argue, this isn’t about RINOs vs Tea Partiers. The problem with the GOP’s leading lights isn’t their unswerving conservatism. Ronald Reagan was an out-of-his-tree right-winger – but he was also right. Rick Perry could advocate replacing the Constitution with the Road to Serfdom and the Bill of Rights with the Ten Commandments and win a 50-state landslide if he had a credible vision for reviving the economy.

And that’s the problem. It’s not ideological obscurantism but the credibility gap that is killing the Republican Party. The mood music is off-key. The exposition is creaky. The audience isn’t buying any of it. If the GOP doesn’t get in some new writers their eventual candidate is going to bomb and Americans will plump for the sequel to Hope and Change.

‘A humble and dedicated man… he was quite simply a gentleman’

Decency. Humility. Kindness.

Those words were repeated endlessly at the funeral service for MSP Bashir Ahmad, who died suddenly on Friday. They were the words chosen – by everyone from imam to first minister – to describe a politician whose friendships and influence cut across parties and communities.

With the shock of his death still fresh, raw emotions were on display from community leaders and politicians who had come to celebrate the man who broke the mould of Scottish politics.

The first minister could not hold back the tears. As he shared grief and memories with crowds of mourners ahead of the service at Glasgow’s Central Mosque, Alex Salmond spoke movingly of the MSP who died suddenly of a heart attack.

He said: “Bashir Ahmad was a history-maker. He became Scotland’s first Asian and first Muslim MSP and when he was elected to the Scottish parliament he made our family more complete. He changed the face of the parliament and that was a very important step forward.

“And when you are the first, character becomes important. We in Scotland were fortunate that our first Muslim MSP was a man steeped in humility and decency and kindness. A man of enormous compassion and humanity, I can honestly say I never met a single person with a bad word to say about him.”

It was the first minister who converted Ahmad to the cause of Scottish Nationalism in 1995. After listening to a speech by Salmond, Ahmad left the Labour Party to join the SNP.

His patriotism was proud but inclusive, according to the first minister. “He was a great patriot,” Salmond said. “He had a favourite saying, which he told me when we first met in 1995. He would say: It doesn’t matter where you come from; what matters is where we’re going together as a country.'”

Salmond then joined the throng of mourners who queued outside the mosque to pay their respects.

The service had been scheduled for 1pm but was delayed until 1.30pm to accommodate the large numbers of people who wanted to attend.

Once inside, Imam Habib led the Namaz-e-Janaza, the Muslim funeral prayer. The intercessionary verse is recited in Arabic, in line with Islamic tradition.

As the service ended and the crowds filed out, political and community leaders joined the first minister’s tribute to Ahmad. Community leader Bashir Maan was a lifelong friend. He described him as “a humble and dedicated man, who was helpful to anyone who asked for his assistance. Quite simply, a gentleman.”

“He inspired young people to want to become MSPs and MPs,” Maan, president of the Islamic Centre, added.

Labour leader Iain Gray said: “He was a kind and decent man and his death is a great loss.”

Conservative MSP Bill Aitken said Ahmad’s “passing leaves a gap in Scotland’s public life that will not easily be filled”.

Glasgow Govan MSP Nicola Sturgeon paid an emotional tribute. She said: “As a man, Bashir was a unique human being. He was loved and respected regardless of people’s politics because he was a kind, decent and sincere man. His political legacy will be immense.”

Salmond said: “One lad at the service told me Bashir was everything a Muslim should be: human and humane towards other people. He has set the standard for others who will follow in his footsteps. That will be his legacy.”

Originally published in the Sunday Herald. Feature image © Postdlf from w by Creative Commons 3.0

How I became Lizzy Bennet

Being Elizabeth Bennet: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure
By Emma Campbell Webster
Atlantic Books, pp.352

Do you remember the choose-your-own-adventure books that squatted brazenly on the school library shelves?

Those laminated interlopers that enticed you with their E-number colour schemes and promises of author-sanctioned page-skipping privileges? How they mocked the “serious” titles and their obsession with education, improvement and the beauty of language. Literature is always outgunned by populism. 

Emma Campbell Webster’s debut operates on much the same principle of literary debasement, albeit with higher aspirations; it is learned populism. Being Elizabeth Bennet: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure gets in on the Soppy Jane racket, the highly profitable mushing of England’s sharpest wit into sentimental romances for television and cinema. 

You, dear reader, are Elizabeth Bennet, headstrong and observant heroine of Pride and Prejudice, daughter of an ambitious mother, harried by time and tradition to nab a fitting suitor, and locked in a sniping courtship with the abrasive Mr Darcy. 

You must use your judgement to navigate the treacherous terrain of early 19th century polite society. Which paths will you take, which romantic overtures accept and decline, whom will you visit and whom avoid? After every few pages of largely loyal prose, Webster throws up a fork in Austen’s plot and allows you to embark on a course of your choosing, thus altering the destiny of Miss Bennet and her acquaintances. 

To zing things up a little, characters from other Austen novels wander into the Pride and Prejudice story and get involved in the action — like the fond daydream of a dozing postmodernist literature professor. 

“Your mission,” Webster elaborates, “is to marry both prudently and for love, eluding undesirable suitors and avoiding family scandals which would almost certainly ruin any hope of a financially advantageous marriage for you or any of your sisters.” Regrettably, the interactivity principle doesn’t allow you to refuse this modest mission in favour of, say, taking Elizabeth off to Westminster to preempt the suffragette movement, perhaps while attending university and going outdoors without a male companion. 

No, you must remain unassuming and proper and covered at the ankles, that you may attract a gentleman of a good few thousand pounds annually — and then? Reader, you marry him. Webster’s running commentary curbs any more radical life plans. When, in a subplot imported from Mansfield Park, you decline to perform in an amateur production, Webster congratulates your modesty. “There is nothing more immoral than a woman on the stage,” she writes, rather giving genocide, rape and third-world famine an unfair hearing. “Collect ten intelligence points for your superior sense of decorum.” Yes, fair maiden, you are awarded points for your ladylike judgement and for correctly answering questions on embroidery and needlework. 

There is little irony to be detected in Webster’s counsel. You get the feeling she has come down with literary Stockholm syndrome — so giddy to rearrange the pieces on Austen’s chessboard that her critical distance takes its leave. 

Her last-minute inclusion of the option to decline marriage in favour of authoring sardonic novels on the vicissitudes of hubby-hunting seems promising — until it directs you back to page one, locking you eternally in this Goldberg trap of premodern gender roles. This is more than a denial of feminism: it is the repudiation of intelligence. 

The book is nakedly pitched at the post-Bridget Jones market and could be successful, if only as a Christmas stocking filler. That is by no means a shameful ambition, but it does feel like a waste. Webster’s knowledge of Austen reaches beyond that of an opportunist writer out to shift books. The skill with which she introduces other Austen characters into Elizabeth’s story marks an adept writer with a hardy grasp of her subject’s canon. i sense — and I could be wrong — that Webster has another, better Austen title in her, one that demands her understanding and appreciation of the author. 

What a pity, then, that she has chosen to reduce some of the greatest novels in English literature to a middle-market offering of erudite froth. 

Originally published in the Herald. Feature image © Thalita Carvalho by Creative Commons 2.0.