30 November 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 30 November 2012

Management and unions at the Guardian and the Observer are set for an almighty confrontation after management this month announced the start of compulsory redundancy proceedings in order to get rid of 100 journalists out of 600-odd on staff.

Guardian News and Media management claims that it needs 100 to go to save £7 million a year – and that only 30 have offered themselves for voluntary severance. After years of job cuts that have seen some 250 editorial staff leave voluntarily, management says that GNM is losing £44 million a year.

GNM journalists say that the losses have nothing to do with editorial over-staffing and everything to do with a misguided commercial strategy. Rather than getting rid of journalists, they say that GNM needs to rethink its commitment to offering all content for free online and to reduce spending on exorbitant management salaries and expensive marketing gimmicks.

The Guardian is no stranger to financial crisis. Until the 1980s, it relied on a subsidy from its sister paper, the Manchester Evening News, to cover its losses – and in the 1960s its management got so jittery that they seriously considered a merger with the Times. Nothing came of it, the MEN continued to pay the bills, and the Guardian put on circulation and cornered the market in advertising for media and public-sector jobs. By the late 1980s, after production costs (and printers’ jobs) were slashed by the introduction of new technology, the Guardian was making money. For a good 15 years it enjoyed a commercial golden age. The Guardian Media Group bought the Observer in 1993 and took over Auto Trader, the profitable used car listing magazine, then in the mid-noughties paired up with a venture capitalist firm for a leveraged buy-out of the magazine company EMAP.

So what has gone wrong? The easy answer is the internet and recession. The internet allows us all to access what news we want online for free, so we don’t buy newspapers as much. It is also how we find out about jobs (and houses and cars) and increasingly how we buy consumer goods. All this means there’s less advertising for print publications. And in a recession advertisers cut back on spending and readers buy fewer newspapers.

This is a challenging environment for all newspapers. With print advertising and sales on the slide, they need to find new revenue streams. And that is what the Guardian has failed to do.

It embraced the internet early, and by 2000 its online audience was bigger than that of any newspaper in Britain – with the website attracting increasing traffic from the US. While other newspapers tried paywalls or limited access to their print versions, the Guardian made everything free to all. The hope was that before long the site would attract sufficient online ad revenues to make up for any fall in sales and print advertising.

But the online advertising has not materialised – or at least not in sufficient quantity. At which point, you might think, the old adage “If you’re in a hole, stop digging” might come into play. Not a bit of it. The Guardian management has stuck to plan A – pour money into online in the hope that web advertising comes to the rescue – with messianic zeal, declaring its strategy to be “digital first”, pouring cash into a new US office in an attempt to establish the Guardian as a genuinely global brand and embracing what editor Alan Rusbridger calls “open journalism”, roughly speaking the idea that the barrier between journalists and reader-contributors will be broken down by digital interactivity.

Its commitment was epitomised by its vastly expensive TV advertising campaign earlier this year, an animation showing a zippy online Guardian awash with user-generated content retelling the fairy story of the three little pigs. Much praised by the ad industry, it had no effect on print sales, but that didn’t stop the man behind it, David Pemsel, being taken on as GNM’s commercial supremo this autumn. Meanwhile, the message from the Guardian to advertisers remains that its online reach is stupendous – but advertisers just won’t pay very much for digital ads.

Of course, GNM needs to stop haemorrhaging money. But getting rid of journalists really isn’t the best way to do it. The work they produce is the main reason people buy the Guardian and Observer and visit the website – not the user-generated content or the dating agency or the coolness of the brand or the interactivity of the mobile apps. I’m not surprised that they’re up in arms and demanding a plan B.

17 November 2012


There are two big stories about the police and crime commissioner elections: the low turnout, and the success of 12 independents (out of 41 commissioners elected).

The low turnout is hardly surprising – but the success of the independents is, at least on first sight. Other than in local elections in some rural areas where "independent" means "Tory by another name", independents win UK elections only in freakish circumstances.

So why the 12 independent successes in the PCC elections? What's common to all of the independents is the pledge to keep politics out of policing. As any Marxist fule kno, that's a false prospectus, because  policing is intensely political: you can't take the politics out of decisions about how to police industrial disputes, demonstrations, civil disobedience, immigration, terrorism, hate speech, state secrets, drugs, business malpractice, domestic violence, prostitution, deviant sexualities, you name it. The problem, of course, is that most people aren't interested in this sort of stuff most of the time: they just want the cops to stop other people nicking and damaging their personal possessions and behaving in violent and threatening ways towards them. What could be political, let alone party-political about that?

So that's the appeal, and with very low turnout the independents tapped into the common sense of prioritising  stopping the stuff everyone wants stopped, with varying degrees of genuflection to social inclusivity and due process.

But the independents aren't really very independent. There's at least one former Tory and one actual Lib Dem among them, and nearly all have been cops, magistrates or members of police authorities. They are policing insiders to a man and woman – as indeed are most of the Labour and Tory PCCs elected on Thursday – and it's difficult to imagine them playing any roles other than cheerleading for their chief constables or populist showboating. Would any of them have stood up to denounce systemic corruption in the Met, or the Hillsborough cover-up, or Orgreave? If police accountability is the goal, this isn't the way to do it.

1 November 2012


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 2 November 2012 

It is, I admit, difficult to feel sympathy for the Russell Group of elite universities. Its 24 members – Oxford, Cambridge, most of the University of London and a handful of other institutions, which between them scoop up more than 80 per cent of higher-education research funding – have a deserved reputation for special pleading. The Russell Group universities enthusiastically embraced Labour’s introduction of student loans and the current coalition government’s move to make higher education entirely student-debt-funded by hiking fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year for undergraduates.

We’ll be all right, they said, and sod the rest. But now, it seems, they’re starting to have second thoughts. Last week, the director of the Russell Group, Wendy Piatt, told a BBC Radio Four documentary that its members have taken a hit of £80 million in lost income because of the shortfall in student recruitment caused by the increase in student fees.

And if they’re hurting, just think of the non-elite universities. The Russell Group have been the main beneficiaries of the government’s decision to relax recruitment controls and allow higher education institutions to recruit as many students as they want with top A-level grades.

The recruitment figures for “post-1992” universities – the former polytechnics – are not yet available. But all the anecdotal evidence suggests a slump in numbers that threatens the viability of many courses and departments. Universities are in crisis as a consequence of a half-arsed government policy, even the posh ones. And last week, a projection by the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think tank, suggested that there is a £1 billion “black hole” in the government’s calculations of its likely income from the repayment of student loans because of ludicrous optimism about graduates’ pay in the future. They didn’t think this one through.

I’ve been teaching journalism at various higher education outfits for more than 20 years, and so far there is no sign of any collapse in demand for journalism courses – which is a relief for me but also a concern, because there aren’t many jobs in journalism right now.

Yes, there are opportunities for young journos with the right skills. I’m as committed as ever to getting talented working-class and ethnic-minority kids into the business. My students today are as good as any I’ve had. But I’m worried that the pell-mell expansion of HE journalism training over the past two decades – driven by an extraordinary boom in journalism employment from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s – has gone too far. I had a particularly brilliant group that finished a university course I ran two years ago that I thought would take over Fleet Street: they’ve done well, but they’re mostly not working in journalism. I wouldn’t go as far as a former colleague, who described the journalism training business as “a giant Ponzi scheme”, but we’re training too many journalists today, and that’s not responsible (even if it pays my mortgage).

It’s not quite as ridiculous as pathology, which, as a result of the popularity of TV crime dramas featuring forensic scientists, has seen an increase in the number qualifying as pathologists rising from five 10 years ago to more than 400 – prompting the vice-president of the Royal College of Patholgists, Suzy Lishman, to tell the Times the other week: “If all these young people want a job when they qualify, at least half will have to retrain as mass murderers.”

But the brutal fact is that it is senseless to organise higher education on front-end market demand: particularly with vocational courses, what seems sexy now won’t be so hot in three years. It’s essential to plan ahead with an eye on the employment market.

OK, there will always be a lag and some guesswork, but there is a role for the person in Whitehall who knows better than 18-year-olds who want to be Julian Assange or the star in a TV cop show.

That isn’t, however, the only problem. Just as idiotic as allowing the passing fancies of 18-year-olds to determine the shape of higher education, the way the worth of university teachers and courses is now assessed is a tick-box questionnaire that all undergraduates get before they do their finals, the National Student Survey. A bad NSS is higher-education death – even though it is usually the result of cock-ups and foibles: one lecturer is parachuted in and pitches the lectures too high or low for the students, another is a particularly tough marker, another has a cohort of students he or she fails to enthuse after a badly judged first lecture.

I’ve been all those, and I regret nothing apart from the stupidity of university managements who accept the tick-box questionnaire as the last word. I’ve never handed out over-generous marks to keep students quiet in the NSS, but I know plenty of lecturers that do. The NSS means grade inflation and falling standards.
And it doesn’t empower students a jot.

I know it’s old-fashioned, but what Britain’s universities need now is national planning, professional independence for lecturers and funding from general taxation. Marketisation has been a disaster. It privileges the stupid wannabe and the whinger above all others. Time for a change: politics back in command.