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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

How the Express won Brexit - by its editor

National newspaper editors don't often explain themselves or their strategies, so Daily Express editor Hugh Whittow's contribution to a book about Brexit and the media is a rare delight. Here are some extracts from his chapter. The words are his, the bold bits are mine:

"A newspaper which believes it can dictate what readers think or how they should vote is doomed to failure."

"For 123 days in 2016, the Daily Express campaigned vigorously for Britain to vote to leave the EU. It was the culmination of a five-year crusade to have our membership put to the popular vote which began on November 25 2010. That day we ran a front page cartoon of the Crusader standing on the White Cliffs of Dover with a message that said We Want Our Country Back. More than 373,000 readers filled in a coupon published in the newspaper."

"The Daily Express became the first national newspaper to declare outright support for UKIP and in January 2011 we published a unique 24-page supplement carefully setting out the case for a UK withdrawal."

"By reflecting the views of our readers we were able to influence the actions of MPs."

"Our unfaltering campaign saw UKIP secure 3,881,000 votes [in the 2015 general election], more than the LibDems and SNP put together and on February 20, 2016, Mr Cameron signalled a victory for the Daily Express by announcing the referendum would be held on June 23. Thus started the most significant and successful Daily Express editorial campaign in living memory."

"In the newspaper and online, front-page editorials, news analysis and political commentaries totally captured the mood of the 17m-plus people who eventually voted for Brexit."

"Some other newspapers, belatedly sensing the rising tide of support for our campaign, which had unleashed people power, tried to emulate us. 
While we were happy and flattered to indirectly receive their support, our five-year record demonstrated beyond dispute it was the Daily Express which had been, all along, the architect of an editorial campaign which brought about a dramatic political victory."

"Despite what critics of the Leave campaign might claim, it was not built on anti-EU stories about straight bananas or 27,000-word laws on the sale of cabbages."

"It was Project Hope versus Project Fear and as we have seen in the months following the referendum, the fear factor was grossly exaggerated.
"Many of my readers have written, phoned and emailed to complain bitterly about the misleading and mendacious half-truths they were bombarded with by the Remain campaign. If there’s one thing an editor who is doing his job should know, it’s that the people who buy the paper aren’t stupid. They aren’t easily conned."

"Where newspapers backing the Leave campaign scored well...was in the variety of issues they covered in such a positive way."

"We never doubted the intelligence of the people who were going to make the big decision about their futures."

"Our campaign with its daily agenda of thought-provoking critical analysis and commentary, was designed to boost the confidence of Leave supporters that victory was possible, thereby ensuring a high turnout."

 "The Daily Express and its unswerving support for UKIP was constantly being denigrated by accusations of racism, xenophobia and a “Little Englander” mentality.
To maintain credibility, confidence and public support in the face of such overwhelming and unfair criticism was a massive challenge which our editorial team took on every day."

 "Another challenge we had to overcome was the stream of opinion polls...given wide publicity throughout the media. To counter this, the Daily Express held frequent polls in the newspaper and online which although not as allegedly scientific as face-to-face and telephone polls (nearly all of which failed to predict the correct result), gave a reliable indicator of the public mood."

"The public appetite for intelligent analysis is as strong as ever and that can only be good for the continued wellbeing of newspapers.

Those who voted on June 23 to be free and independent were surely delivering a similar vote of confidence in the newspaper industry."

Brexit, Trump and the Media is edited by John Mair, Tor Clark, Neil Fowler, Raymond Snoddy and Richard Tait, and is published by Abramis, price £19.95. 
There is another rather good chapter in in by someone not unlike the woman at the top of this blog.

Friday, 8 September 2017

In defence of Ryanair

Oh we do love to hate Ryanair. Low-cost airline? Pah! It’s a nasty little organisation, always looking for sneaky ways to charge customers more.

You could hear the sigh of whatever-next exasperation/outrage yesterday as the Mail brought out the “Now” word to report the company’s latest luggage policy – to revert to its old practice of allowing only one free item per passenger. “Now Ryanair charges you for hand luggage”. Note the neat use of “you”, so readers know exactly who the victim is here.

The report would certainly comply with the Editors’ Code standards of accuracy, but the tone is hostile. Passengers who turn up at the gate with two bags will have to put one in the hold, and face the “inconvenience” of having to collect it from the baggage carousel at their destination.
“Ryanair warned that anyone who refuses to put one of their carry-on bags in hold - for example because it contains valuables - will be blocked from travelling and will not be entitled to a refund.” 
Classic Mail, accentuating the negative.

But it was far from alone. For The Times “Millions of passengers will be stopped from taking wheeled luggage into the cabin of Ryanair flights amid claims that the current allowances are being abused by travellers.”
See! Millions of victims, while the airline’s explanation is presented as a “claim”, ie, something to be questioned.

So, too, is its marketing chief, who is seen “insisting” all over the place that this isn’t a money-making exercise. The inference being “in the face of all the evidence”. As the Mail reminds us: “Ryanair has frequently been criticised for the extra charges it levies on customers."

It also finds someone from an organisation called Fairer Finance to say: “This is a problem Ryanair created for themselves. By charging people a lot of money to check in bags, everybody has tried as hard as possible to avoid this. After years of treating customers with contempt, many will be suspicious of this.”

Here’s the Telegraph: “Ryanair is banning passengers from using weekend and wheelie bags as hand luggage, over claims that customers are abusing its "two items" rule and causing delays. From Nov. 1, millions of Ryanair passengers will be forced to put standard-sized hand luggage in the hold, unless they cough up £10 per return flight for priority boarding.”

There are those millions again. And now there’s a ban. And they’re being “forced” to put luggage in the hold or “cough up” ten quid. Again, all of that would probably pass muster with the Code’s accuracy clause, except there is no ban – or “bar”, as Metro puts it in its headline. You can still take those wheelie bags in the cabin if you’re prepared to pay.

Still, at least the Telegraph takes the trouble to compare baggage allowances with other airlines. The Mail, too, grudgingly admits that Easyjet allows only a single free bag and that passengers who want to take a second on board have to pay for extra legroom. Do you remember the headlines about this policy? No, nor do I. But paying for extra legroom isn’t the same is paying for priority boarding. Not least because Easyjet’s extra legroom seats cost £14.99 or £15.99. 

The Express also has “ban” in its intro, and the Mirror also makes passengers “cough up” a fiver per trip, but the i, Guardian and FT all manage to tell the story accurately and straight, and the Sun hits the nail on the head with its headlines (with the toughest count of all): “Airline 2nd bag charge” and “Ryanair axe freebie”.

I travel on Ryanair a lot. There are irritations.

It is virtually impossible to change a flight because the administrative charge makes it uneconomical: it’s almost always cheaper to write off the unwanted flight and rebook.

Customer service is a nightmare: it costs a fortune to talk to a person. But the fact that it’s an English-speaking business based on the British Isles leads us to forget that Ryanair is a foreign carrier, so contacting it involves international calls. Would we be as grumpy about expensive call charges if we were trying to contact Lufthansa or SwissAir?

And those bloody scratchcards – “your chance to help children’s charities” - and the fanfare when the flight touches down on time. Spare us, please!

Oh yes, there are irritations. But I’m still a pretty satisfied customer. And on abuse of the luggage allowance, Ryanair is absolutely right.

Those suitcases on wheels are a menace. I blame Alan Sugar and The Apprentice. It’s one thing for 16 wannabe tycoons to totter/swagger across London Bridge with their bags in tow, but when it comes to thousands sauntering through the departure lounge…

It is perfectly possible to wheel such a case alongside you, but no, most trail it behind them, oblivious to the hazard it poses to people behind. It’s like a dog walker who has no idea what her pooch is doing until the lead tautens and she turns to find it having a poo or sniffing a Labrador. These cases weigh at most 10kg, what’s wrong with picking them up? It’s supposed to be carry-on, not drag-on luggage.

The diehards won't lift their bags even when they board the plane, insisting on wheeling them down the aisle. And then there’s the general kerfuffle as they’re heaved up into the lockers.

Yes, Ryanair is right about the abuse and the delays. The rule used to be one bag per person. That was eased to allow a handbag/laptop case as well – possibly in response to complaints from airport shops who presumably lost potential sales because people wouldn’t be able to take their Ted Baker or Oasis bag in addition to their wheelie case/holdall. Signs popped up all over Stansted Airport saying “All airlines, including Ryanair, now allow a second bag” as an encouragement for waiting passengers to spend, spend, spend.

Whether they did or not, I don’t know. But I do know that people started turning up at the gate not with a cabin bag and a little handbag, but with two big bags. I also know that cabin crew struggle to get people on and off the planes as speedily as they used to. For a while they have been inviting passengers to put a bag in the hold for free, but it seems too few of us have done so, so now the airline is offering a financial deterrent – and a financial incentive, although yesterday’s coverage gave that less emphasis.

The new rules

So, with interests I hope disclosed, may I attempt a straight interpretation of the new Ryanair policy.

1: Passengers will be allowed to carry one bag with them without charge, as was the case until three years ago. This bag will, however, have to be smaller than it was under the previous one-bag policy.

2: Passengers will be allowed to put one bag weighing up to 10kg in the hold without charge. They will not have to check this in. They can simply drop it at the gate.

3: Passengers will be allowed to take two bags into the cabin if they pay £5 for priority boarding.

4: The check-in luggage allowance is being increased by 25% to 20kg and the charge being cut by 28% from £35 to £25. That represents a 46% price reduction in terms of kilos per £..

Case study

And here’s an attempt at a comparison of what the cost of flying to southwest France on Monday would be if the new charges were in place. The Easyjet service goes from Gatwick to Toulouse, Ryanair's from Stansted to Bergerac. Easyjet's cheapest fare for the trip is £36.49, Ryanair's £14.99.

Total cost with two carry-on bags, one checked 20kg bag, extra legroom/speedy boarding: Easyjet: £67.48; Ryanair: £54.99 (under the present regime, this combination would cost £64.99.)

With two carry-on bags, premium seat/priority boarding, no hold luggage: Easyjet: £51.48; Ryanair: £29.99 (unchanged).

With one big carry-on bag: Easyjet (without speedy boarding) : £36.99; Ryanair (including priority boarding): £19.99.

With one small carry-on bag: Easyjet: £36.99; Ryanair: £14.99

With one small carry-on bag, 10kg bag in hold: Easyjet: £52.99. Ryanair: £14.99.

There are so many permutations. But the bottom line is that Ryanair almost always offers the lowest fare for people who just want to get on a plane, land on time and get to where they want to be with minimum fuss. Michael O’Leary once said he wanted travel on his airline to be like getting on and off a bus. It’s supposed to be no-frills. That’s the business model. If you want extra bits, you can pay for them, but don’t expect everyone else to pay for them too. 
Hence the joke about charging to use the loo. The inevitable furore followed, but it was never going to happen. The idea was to convince passengers “to go” before starting their journey, just as parents do before loading their children into the car, in the interests of efficiency and a smooth flight.

Mr O’Leary may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but – as the Times and Telegraph reports point out – millions of people use his services. In fact, it can fairly be called Europe's favourite airline, since it has the most passengers: 117m  last year, against BA's 100m and Easyjet's 70m. This is, of course why the papers are so interested in everything it does - and why the Express and Mirror were wrong to treat the announcement as a business, rather than consumer, story and put it at the back of the book.
Sometimes it seems that O'Leary prefers to treasure the reputation as our least-favourite airline. Blaming your customers for the introduction of a new charge is not good PR. Ryanair doesn’t do good PR.

What would be the point when the Press has already made up its mind before a word has been uttered? After all, who would read a story that said "Chuck your bag in the hold for nothing, without having to turn up early to check it in"? Or "Ryanair slashes baggage charges by 46%"?

As another Irishman from way back would say: it's the way they tell 'em.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

Election day anger: a valedictory rant

I'm just off to the polling station. My cross won't make a jot of difference. The defending MP took 58% of the vote last time and won't be dislodged.
The parties I have voted for in the past have always come a poor third, fourth or fifth, so I'm used to having my voice drowned out electorally. Not only that, I colluded in this state of affairs, having backed first-past-the-post in that other referendum everyone has forgotten about.

But this time, as the shock jocks are paid to say, I'm angry. I'm bloody angry.  I've been bloody angry for 13 months. And I'm fed up with it.
Like that nice Mr Farage, I'd like my life back. I want to get back to "normal", for my head to stop spinning, to stop this constant feeling of nausea, anxiety, impotence.

But it's not going to stop. The chances are that this time tomorrow Mrs May will be leaning on her Downing Street lectern, claiming that the country is behind her. She may or may not be able to resist reciting "strong and stable", but there will certainly be platitudes about  "getting the best deal" with Europe and governing for all the people.
She won't (get the best deal). She can't (govern for everyone).
She can't because - regardless of whether she scrapes home, increases her majority or wins by a landslide - she won't have even half of the country behind her.
Which is, again, as it always was. You have to go back to 1931 to find a party (the Conservatives, as it happens) elected with more than half the popular vote.

So why the anger now?

Because the whole country's life has been on hold for too long. We've been in limbo since early 2015 and will remain so for at least another couple of years. And then? Catastrophe? Or a land of golden opportunity?
And if it's the latter, what price will we have paid over those years of water-treading uncertainty?

What's more, much as I'd love to see the back of May, the situation could be even worse if she doesn't get her way.
The chances of Corbyn winning outright are remote, but there might just be a hung parliament. And that would mean more confusion, more distractions with yet another party leadership contest - for surely May cannot survive if she fails to increase her majority - and inevitably another general election.
Does anyone, of any political persuasion, think that Britain is in a good place?

We didn't need to be here. And that's what makes me angry.

First of all, I'm angry with David Cameron.
Not so much for calling the EU referendum - yes, it was more about herding party cats than about Europe - but for making such a hash of it. For failing to build in requirements for a  minimum turnout and a decent majority either way, for failing to realise that a simple in-out question wouldn't cover all eventualities, for failing to sort out the basics in Parliament before going to the people, for failing so comprehensively in the campaign itself, and for failing to show any statesmanship in running away the moment the result went against him.

I'm angry with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. 
For putting personal ambition above principle in the full knowledge that whatever happened, they'd be all right Jack.
I'm angry with David Davis for his sheer incompetence. For thinking that it's ok, as our chief Brexit negotiator, not to have costed the various possible outcomes or to have considered what might happen if we don't get what we want.

I'm angry with voters' apparent punishment fetish.
The way they "punished" Nick Clegg for doing what any little party would do and taking the opportunity to put at least some of its ideas into practice by going into a coalition. And then "punishing" him again over tuition fees. "We can never trust the LibDems again after that."
What? After generations of broken promises from the two main parties, the LibDems are cast into oblivion over one issue? Fair enough, if that's what you think. But if you're a grieving Remainer, don't try that argument here.
Because there would have been no referendum if those punishing voters hadn't thrown Clegg and his MPs out.

I'm angry with Labour.
Having chosen the wrong Miliband and been soundly defeated in 2015,  it decided not to draw on its recent experience of how to win, but to go in the opposite direction and pick someone even more left-wing, a man whose entire political history had been characterised by disloyalty to the party leadership.
And what did the party do when MPs said they couldn't work with him and polls suggested that the overwhelming majority of voters could not stomach him as prime minister?  It re-elected him.  With a bigger majority.
Hundreds of thousands of Labour members voted him in.  It's their party and they can die if they want to. But what about the millions of centre-left Labour voters left with nowhere to go?
Yes, parts of the manifesto have had wide appeal, Yes, Corbyn has been attracting great crowds. But crowds can be deceptive. Look at Kinnock and the wildly applauding masses in Sheffield in 1992.

I'm angry with Corbynistas.
For vilifying their party's most successful leader, for making Blairite a term of abuse.  Forget the three election wins, just remember the war. A war that any Conservative Prime Minister would have joined.
OK, the "I'm with you whatever" blank cheque promise to Bush is damning, but who really thinks Bush wouldn't have invaded without us? That war would have happened with or without Blair's blessing.
British lives on the line? Yes. That's what we do. What we've always done. After all we're a world power, a player in the big game. Ask any nationalist. Would we have stood aloof while the French and the Canadians et al did their bit?

I'm angry with Corbyn.
For not seeing all of this. Or, even worse, for seeing all this and carrying on regardless.

I'm angry with Remain-supporting MPs in the last parliament.
For forgetting that they were put there to use their judgment and do what is in the best interests of the country. For plagiarising the Nuremberg defence: just following orders from "the people" on Brexit, even though it wasn't a majority of the people and even though they believed that minority to be wrong (I'm not angry with the Eurosceptics. They are what they are and have always been).
An honourable exception should be Ken Clarke. But I'm angry with him for standing on a Conservative ticket behind a woman who expects blind obedience, rather than breaking out on his own or working with people who might together achieve what he believes in.

I'm angry with the media.
For the lies and distortion and incestuousness.
The Mail, Sun and Express, in particular, for their demonisation of vulnerable people. For using immigration as a weapon to win Brexit.
All papers are entitled to their opinions, to campaign for causes they believe in. It's the unbalanced reporting that angers me and shames my trade.
The way they focus on Corbyn's behaviour 40 years ago and ignore May's responsibilities as Home Secretary and Prime Minister all this decade.
The skirting round stories that are positive for Corbyn (hospital car parking charges) or uncomfortable for May (dementia tax). The Express had a "crusade" about hospital parking, but didn't feel the need to tell its readers about the Labour policy. The paper cares about inheritance taxes, house prices, the diseases of old age. So how did it respond to the Tory care plan? By finding  a "cure" for Alzheimer's.
The sheer hypocrisy of relentlessly banging on about the risks of electing Corbyn, after the way they screeched "Project Fear" when anyone dared suggest there were risks attached to Brexit.

I'm angry with the Mirror.
For the failure until the last minute to engage in the referendum debate - as limp-wristed an effort as Corbyn's - or to live up to its glorious campaigning history in this election. It's not the Mirror's duty to match the right-wingers for nastiness. It can't compete with their readership. But it could try a little harder along the way, instead of just turning up at the end like John Terry in his Chelsea shirt.

I'm angry with broadcasters, especially the BBC.
For giving UKIP and Farage so much unwarranted airtime over the past five years (funnily enough I'm not angry with Farage. I think he is an obnoxious piece of work, but, like the Eurosceptic MPs, he is what he is and has never pretended to be otherwise).
For allowing the Press to set the news agenda, day after day. That is what gives the Sun and the Mail their influence. They sell to barely 3m people between them, but their news values permeate every outlet.
The BBC and ITV are bigger than both of them. They should make their own judgments.
And they should dump those press reviews: we can see what's on the front pages when we go to the supermarket. There might be some value if they were to spend some time discussing arguments put forward by columnists who had more than ten minutes to consider what they were writing. But do listeners of the Today programme need to be told at 6.10am that the Daily Express is splashing on immigration again?

I'm angry about Brexit (had you guessed?)
About the ugly effect it has had on our society. About the way common sense has been thrown out of the window. About the way nationalism has been rebranded as patriotism, so that by worrying about the future of a UK outside Europe you are suddenly doing the country down.
About the way that voicing concern has become almost treasonable: "Time to silence the EU whingers" as the Express so charmingly put it.
About the way that MY freedom of movement is being taken away. About the way that OUR children could lose their rights to work and study abroad - on the say-so of people with no wish to leave their armchairs, let alone the country.

I'm angry about foreigners.  No, not like that.
I am angry because our politicians pay court to foreign press barons and nondoms, offer sweeteners to foreign companies, and allow our water, electricity and railways to be run by foreign businesses answering to foreign shareholders.
But I wouldn't be angry about that if they didn't at the same time tolerate and even encourage the press narrative that people who come from Europe to work hard and contribute to our society are either spongers or job stealers, swamping the NHS, schools and housing.
I am angry about the constant cry that we need to leave the EU so that we can "control our borders" and keep criminals out. Especially since most immigration is from outside the EU and there are provisions to control migration from within the community that we - Mrs May, actually - have failed to implement.

Most of all - today -  I'm angry about Theresa May.
I'm angry that a mediocre but opportunistic politician without any vision or charisma has run a Me, Me, Me presidential campaign that is likely to be successful.
 A woman who (like Corbyn) paid lip-service to the Remain campaign, but kept her distance because she could see that she might inherit the big job from Cameron, whichever way the vote went.
A woman with so much respect for parliamentary democracy that she called this very election because "not all of Westminster" had "got behind Brexit". Opposition? Good grief! What a notion.
A woman who says the thing she's learnt from this campaign is that she likes meeting voters - when the only voters she's met have been clutches of admirers in closed rooms.
A woman whose main claim to power is that she isn't someone else. A woman who refuses to put a price on her policies, then accuses the opposition of not being able to afford their costed ideas.
A woman who says Brexit will bring endless opportunities, but can't give an example of one;  a woman won't tell us what she aims to get out of the negotiations with Europe, yet expects us to trust her over those who do say what they want.
A woman so lacking in statesmanship that she uses an international forum - G7 - to criticise her domestic rival; a woman who thinks that promising to be "bloody difficult"  is a good way to start negotiations; a woman who further helps her cause with election-meddling charges against those she hopes will cut her a good deal.
A woman so confident of Britain's future outside Europe that, desperate to be "first in the queue", she rushes to pay homage to Trump five minutes after the inauguration, clutching a state visit invitation like an ingenue surrendering her virginity on her first date.
A woman who continues to suck up to that American president, even when his reaction to a terror attack in London is to traduce the elected mayor - who happens to be Muslim - while the Europeans she plans to shun illuminate their landmarks with Union Flags in sympathy and solidarity.
A woman who tries to score political points on the back of those attacks - notwithstanding the fact that she has had personal responsibility for anti-terrorism and policing for the past seven years.

Enough! There's more. But enough, as the lady famously said, is enough.

I am angry because I am frustrated, impotent. Angry because we are today faced with a choice between two incompetents. Because the world is laughing at us and we don't seem to care; we're just going with the flow. The people spoke on June 23 last year and democracy means never being allowed to change your mind or have a rethink. Or at least it does these days. Instead we must do the electoral equivalent of sending good money after bad and reinforce the power base of our maladroit prime minister. Like the Turks, we're being asked to vote for dictatorship. She won't tell us what she's going to do, but we're expected to be grateful and not ask awkward questions. Everything will be fine. Theresa's wonderful.

I am also ashamed.
Because this feeling of helplessness is new - even though I am neither more nor less helpless than at any time before - and I realise that that is the way it has always been for millions of people.
Many of them will have voted for Brexit to "get back" at the powers-that-be who rained austerity on them: the politicians who were careful not to raise income tax -  which the poorest don't pay - but who were happy to introduce new indirect taxes, such as levies on insurance premiums, that even the poorest couldn't avoid.
These are the voters who will give Mrs May her mandate and then pay the price of another five years of Tory Government; the price of Brexit. They are already paying - higher food bills, higher transport costs - thanks to the fall in sterling that has had such a brilliant impact on share prices.
Then there are the old who dreamt of a Britain "like it used to be" - all soft-focus dappled-light poppyfields and comely young gels in puff-sleeved frocks freewheeling down the lane on bicycles with a basket at the front. They will be entered into a health lottery: cancer or heart attack? The NHS will take care of you; Alzheimer's or disability? You must pay, but we'll take an IOU with your home as security.
And when we have left Europe and all those foreigners have gone, will life be better for the old, the sick, the disabled, the poor? No. It will be worse.
And our tabloids will be there to blame them for their plight.

So that's why I'm angry. And that's why it's probably time to give this blog a rest.