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TUESDAY 27  FEBRUARY 2024

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You’re not selling adverts Jim, you’re selling NEWS forget that and it’s all over

Reach boss Jim Mullen did his best last week to draw a line under the wave of sackings imposed on the staff and look optimistically to the future.

 

Speaking from his home study, he addressed not only staff at Reach headquarters in Canary Wharf, but also in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and towns and cities across Britain where they have local newspapers or websites.

 

He wanted to calm nerves, reassure survivors of the cull that the owner of the Mirror, Express and Star titles is poised to reap the benefits of his new way forward and sunny uplands are just around the corner.

 

The Mirror and the Express were once great newspapers. Under Reach, they are husks of their former selves. The Mirror has an interim editor, Caroline Waterstone, following Alison Phillips’s decision to take redundancy. The Express is led by Gary Jones, who was implicated in phone hacking under Piers Morgan at the Mirror.

 

I’ve got builders next door to me. They are in the process of restoring a sadly neglected house. And they have a plan not unlike Mullen’s.

 

First you rip the guts out, with lots of drilling, hammering, crashing and banging. That’s where we are now. I have seen the plans for what follows: it will be an impressive dwelling worth probably well north of £1.5 million.

 

But try as I might, I can’t quite see the endgame at Reach. Mullen is fixated on a switch to digital media. He seems determined to run down the papers (even though they bring in about 70 per cent of the group’s revenue) and boost the presence of the websites.

 

In principle, that’s a fair enough aim. One day soon, all newspapers will be online. To fight that reality is to join the Luddites.

 

But like all bosses with limited newspaper experience, Mullen has focused on balance sheets and forgotten about the journalism. He thinks he is selling advertising. He isn’t. He’s selling news and if he doesn’t understand that, then the group will founder.

 

People don’t buy newspapers for the advertisements. They don’t go on the websites to be irritated by pop-ups. They want news. That’s the product.

 

If you degrade the news – say, by employing influencers rather than reporters, or computer geeks rather than sub-editors, or stealing the news from others, rather than finding it yourself – you degrade the product. And that’s what Mullen is doing.

 

Like Richard Desmond, from whom Reach bought the Express and Star titles, he doesn’t get what journalists do, or why it has to cost him money, or what value they bring. It’s too ephemeral to grasp, too mysterious to believe in.

 

Rothermere of the Mail gets it; and so, of course, does Murdoch of The Times. Sheikh Mansour, of the United Arab Emirates, wannabe owner of the Telegraph titles and the Spectator, doesn’t get it … and evidently neither does Mullen.

 

That’s why, in the end, Rothermere and Murdoch (or their heirs) will be the last men standing.

 *****

 My favourite story of the week – for all the wrong reasons – was about Hugh Hefner’s widow.

 

Model Crystal Hefner, 37, has written a misery memoir of life with the old libertine. And it is hard to imagine a bigger pile of disingenuous cobblers.

 

“It seemed like a world of success and fantasy,” she writes, “but everyone’s having to sleep with an 80-year-old.”

 

Surely not? You’re having us on, love. Who could have seen that coming at the Playboy mansion? Well, apparently not a faux-blonde bimbo with a chest you could park your pint on, if you believe her account in Only Say Good Things: Surviving Playboy and Finding Myself.

 

Reporter Keiran Southern, The Times’s man in Los Angeles, does his best to slip in a trigger warning of the fatuous nonsense you’re about to read: “Crystal learnt the hard way that if you marry for money, you earn every penny.”

 

But despite that, on and on it goes, each paragraph more breathless than the last, a Page 13 lead that wouldn’t be out of place in the Daily Star.

 

I’m surprised at The Times. It decided long ago (for which you can probably read Murdoch decided) to get down and dirty with the rest of us. But the paper lets itself down with this claptrap.

 *****

 What a brave and thoughtful woman is Katharine Birbalsingh, head teacher at Britain’s “strictest school”.

 

She is holding the line against a legal attempt by a Moslem pupil to overturn a ban on prayers imposed because the governors thought the playground devotions were divisive.

 

Birbalsingh, 51, runs Michaela Community School, in Wembley, London, a free school where 90 per cent of A-levels are graded A* to B and 82 per cent of sixth-formers leave for Russell Group universities.

 

The school, where half the pupils are Moslem, is secular and trouble started last year when a pupil knelt to pray in the playground. Then came an online petition demanding a prayer room.

 

What followed was “scary”, Birbalsingh told the Sunday Times. A brick was thrown through a teacher’s window, another endured an attempted break-in and staff began car sharing to get to work safely.

 

Birbalsingh believes the prayer ban is necessary to promote integration and prevent pupils forming cliques based on race and religion.

 

She is right and she should not be fighting this battle alone. The Government should banish religion from schools.

 

The French already do this. It’s what the French Revolution was about – to remove the church and the aristocracy from affairs of state.

 

As a result, all state schools are secular and religious symbols are banned. This includes clothing, so the hijab is outlawed in schools. So is the kippah, the Jewish skullcap. And so is the Christian symbol of the cross, even when worn discreetly on a necklace.

 

Religion has caused more tension and violence and grief in the world than any other factor. It has no place in schools. This goes for Church of England and Roman Catholic schools just as much as for Islamic madrasas or Jewish Yeshivas.

 

Birbalsingh, whose parents were Christians, says she wants to encourage harmony and social cohesion by keeping the school secular. “Otherwise, you end up with schools where black African Caribbean kids stick with their own, Moslem kids stick with their own and so on. That does not help a multi-cultural society to succeed.”

 

Right again. We should all pray that she succeeds.


RICHARD DISMORE


23 Jaanuary 2024