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The challenges ahead for your paper – and the wider movement

Morning Star editor Ben Chacko’s report to the 2021 People’s Press Printing Society’s annual general meeting

WHAT a changed world it seems since my last editor’s report to an AGM in May-June 2019.

Britain has been struck by tragedy, as we have been one of the worst affected countries by the Covid pandemic.

Millions have lost loved ones to Covid-19 including our own newspaper which lost a cherished member of staff in arts and books editor Cliff Cocker towards the end of August.

The horror of over 150,000 Covid deaths has been accompanied by another tragedy, a political one — as the pandemic hit just after the 2019 election saw the electorate reject a Labour government committed to a whole suite of policies — more investment in public services, removing privateers from the NHS, higher pay, banning zero-hours contracts — that would have made a world of difference during the pandemic.

Even in opposition such a party could have made a difference, holding the government to account and exposing the role low pay and insecure contracts played in stopping people self-isolating and the way the private sector has hollowed out our public services.

But Labour’s defeat in the election was followed by the left’s defeat in Labour and we have had an insipid opposition failing to challenge government failures or draw the lesson that the system itself has to change if we are to resolve the huge crises facing our people.

The Morning Star is proud to have consistently supported the left resurgence in Labour from 2015-20, battling the barrage of Establishment propaganda smearing Labour’s then leader Jeremy Corbyn, often as a lone voice in the British press.

The wall-to-wall hostility faced by Corbyn and his supporters from the Tory and liberal press alike, including the supposedly neutral BBC, have been an object lesson in the power the ruling class exert through ownership and control of the media — and a powerful reminder of the need for a stronger media of our own.

At the same time the Morning Star can be proud of not having played a naive or sycophantic role in its support for the Corbyn movement, nor having wavered in the face of ruling-class attacks. 

While as the only socialist daily newspaper in the English-speaking world we were the sole pro-Corbyn voice in the daily press, other left media outlets did spring up sympathetic to the leadership online.

Many gained impressive reach and played an often positive role in countering Establishment lies.

Nonetheless these platforms were detached from the traditions and organisations that make up the labour movement, to which the Morning Star is firmly anchored through our co-operative ownership structure, our trade union shareholders and our commitment to revolutionary change in line with the strategy outlined in Britain’s Road to Socialism. 

These moorings meant the Morning Star was far more consistent in challenging right-wing smears against Corbyn supporters, where many other voices in the left media showed a striking lack of solidarity with victims of repeated witch-hunts.

It also meant the Morning Star had the political acuity to warn of the catastrophic consequences of the Labour leadership’s accommodation with the liberal cause of overturning the 2016 EU referendum result.

We fought hard for a Labour win in the 2019 election regardless and shared the dismay of the whole labour movement at the result, but it is fair to say that Labour could have avoided many of the pitfalls it fell into had the Morning Star been a stronger and more influential voice in its counsels.

The paper’s unique role has been just as evident since.

When the pandemic struck the importance of trade unions in protecting the livelihoods and very lives of workers became clear, as individual unions intervened in often difficult circumstances to fight for proper safety arrangements including enforcement of social distancing guidelines at work and access to personal protective equipment, stocks of which the Conservative government had allowed to run low despite their own Exercise Cygnus pandemic drill in 2016 warning them that this would happen.

At the same time the TUC was instrumental in securing the job retention scheme and associated programmes that saved millions of jobs during the extended lockdowns. 

Only the Morning Star consistently reported on and championed this work, and early in the pandemic we celebrated the role of unions in the crisis with a special bumper Workers’ Memorial Day edition.

We also combined with allies across the left to promote this message, sharing the People’s Assembly’s weekly crisis round-ups from our social media pages and having staff participate on these platforms. 

We were also the only voice in the media drawing out the global lessons of the pandemic.

We looked at the wildly variable experiences of Covid internationally, with countries that quickly adopted a “zero-Covid” strategy based on suppressing the virus seeing far fewer infections and deaths than countries — sadly including Britain — that didn’t. 

This inspired us to work with Diane Abbott MP to help found the Zero-Covid Coalition, through which we helped bring together platforms of trade unionists, left activists and scientists to push for a change of strategy to one which was clearly more successful, as we could see in the experiences of countries as different as New Zealand, a small sparsely populated island nation with a liberal political system, to China, a continental behemoth home to some of the most densely populated regions on Earth and governed by a Communist Party. 

Yet Britain’s dire experience of Covid (at the time of writing we had suffered 2,018.65 deaths per million people, compared with 3.47 deaths per million people in China) was not just due to government failures in the short-term, though these were numerous. 

Nothing could better illustrate the disastrous consequences of neoliberalism than the utter failure of a Tory approach based on handing public health contracts to the private sector — often to firms with no experience of public health whatsoever.

Huge sums were squandered on failed test-and-trace schemes run by disgraced outsourcing giants like Serco, while the Conservatives put cronies like failed TalkTalk executive Dido Harding at the helm of these projects.

So pervasive was the outsourcing of public responsibility that consultancy Deloitte was even placed in charge of writing ministers’ answers to questions in Parliament about these schemes.

Yet these decisions were merely a continuation of longstanding trends. A groundbreaking 2020 study by We Own It, given front-page billing only by the Morning Star, exposed the way privatisation had wrought havoc with the NHS supply chain at a time when nurses and front-line workers were facing acute PPE shortages. 

While the vaccine rollout — delivered by our still publicly owned NHS — has been a tremendous success, few beyond the Morning Star have campaigned on the negative consequences globally of control of vaccine supply by a handful of giant pharmaceuticals (or the way a vaccine developed using public money at Oxford University was handed to the for-profit big pharma giant AstraZeneca following pressure from US tycoon Bill Gates).

Unequal access to vaccines is a glaring injustice which also hobbles efforts to suppress the virus worldwide, meaning further mutations and new vaccine-resistant strains are more likely to emerge.

Here again we see the malign influence of Britain’s corporate-dominated politics and the market fundamentalism of the European Union, as London and Brussels continue to stymie a vaccine patent waiver at the World Trade Organisation that even the United States now favours.

As the unequal impact of the virus shines a spotlight on a British society in which yawning divides along lines of class, race and sex determine people’s life chances, the case for a fundamental overhaul of the political and economic status quo is even stronger than it was pre-pandemic. 

Yet our political elite is determined to shore up that status quo. The Conservatives’ attacks on public-sector pay and connivance at attacks on pay and conditions in the private sector through fire and rehire show that they are intent on restoring business as usual.

The state of the Labour Party is even more depressing, as its leadership devote all their efforts to suppressing the radical legacy of Corbyn, withholding the whip from the former leader in defiance of a decision by their own NEC panel to reinstate him to the party, banning debate in constituency parties and hounding out left-wing members. Labour’s commitment to preventing political change is as deep as the Tories’.

That has been clearer than ever internationally. Among the most important developments of the last two years is the deepening of a new cold war with socialist China.

Conspiracy theories about Covid-19 being developed in a lab, laughed out of court even by US allies when raised by Donald Trump, are suddenly respectable when voiced by Joe Biden, and anti-China propaganda is reaching deafening volume in the print and broadcast media, with accusations of the utmost gravity being levelled without any serious evidence. 

The Morning Star is committed to challenging this demonisation campaign, so similar to those which provided the excuses for wars of aggression against Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya.

We are proud to have worked with the No Cold War campaign and the Stop the War Coalition to oppose the new cold war, and have also developed closer links to Chinese journalists working in London from the China Media Group. 

We are also proud to have championed the few voices recognising that the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the resulting refugee crisis are not the consequence simply of US withdrawal but of the decision to invade in the first place.

After 20 years this humiliating end to the war on terror should strengthen our commitment to build the peace movement, in line with our newspaper’s motto For Peace and Socialism.

We have also deepened our anti-imperialist work including through co-operation with the anti-colonial Liberation campaign, publishing its magazine as a pullout in our own pages and sharing its meetings live from our own platforms.

The outlook may seem bleak. But waves of protest, from Black Lives Matter to Extinction Rebellion and the huge demonstrations by women against male violence following the murder of Sarah Everard, show that mobilisation for radical change is still possible.

There is a new militancy among trade unionists, with plans for a nationwide campaign of town hall and street meetings to build for a massive demo next year demanding a new deal for workers — the campaign begun by the CWU which the Morning Star has supported since its inception.

NHS workers in multiple unions are rejecting insulting pay awards from the Tories. The paper of the labour movement stands with them.

Our ability to do that depends, as ever, on our readers, supporters and shareholders. The pandemic has meant big changes at the Morning Star, the long-term consequences of which are not all yet clear.

As we entered the crisis we had just concluded a 90th anniversary appeal that raised nearly £90,000 for the paper. The lockdown precipitated a crisis for us, too: a collapse in shop sales and an end to the labour movement conferences, marches and meetings that provide our advertising revenue and many additional sales.

We were forced to launch another appeal almost immediately, one which your astonishing commitment to our survival saw raise another £90,000.

We were also forced into huge and rushed changes to the production process. A couple of weeks’ notice before the national lockdown was used to consult with our former production editor and devise a means of shutting down the newsroom and producing the paper with all staff working from home.

This required building remote server access and giving staff a crash course in new communications technology to communicate in real time as we would in the office.

There were multiple hiccups and near-disasters in the early days of this process, but over time we overcame them, and the Morning Star is still being largely produced remotely.

This combined with the end of our lease of William Rust House, so the paper has moved its offices to smaller premises in Ruskin House, Croydon. These offices are not yet ready for staff to work from, but even when they are, they are too small to accommodate the 30-odd employees who used to work from William Rust House. 

A more flexible working model will apply in future, with the office available for staff who need to use it but most work on most days being based at home.

While we have seen big advantages to home working in terms of productivity and most staff appreciate the lack of expensive and lengthy daily commutes, we have not yet resolved issues around training nor had to deal with training many new production employees from scratch under the new circumstances.

Remote access to a server physically located in the offices continues to pose a range of technical problems which we hope to solve by moving our server to the cloud. However, the ongoing lack of in-house technical expertise has significantly slowed this process.

If remote working poses some problems there are also opportunities and it is likely that we can recruit from a wider range of talent if we are not requiring most staff to be based in London.

Moving to London has in the past been too big an ask for some promising candidates. It is also possible that this will enable the paper to become more representative of the country as a whole in the news it covers, as the excellent work of our northern reporter and Scotland reporter already do.

And the lockdown forced changes to the way we met and promoted the paper, too, as it did across the left.

The online rally and webinar became tools of the movement to a degree we had not imagined before. The Morning Star made good use of this, not just through campaigns like the Zero-Covid Coalition but in hosting our own online meetings on topics from peace to anti-racism, anniversaries and even Christmas.

Some attracted over 10,000 viewers, a number unthought of when we were restricted to physical meetings. While opening up means a welcome return to actual meetings, which Zoom can never replace, this new tool in our arsenal is one we will continue to use to promote the Morning Star and its analysis and ideas.

Finally there is the ongoing impact of the pandemic itself on our business. Things are not back to normal, and some things may never be. 

The Morning Star saw shop sales decline dramatically during the pandemic: we have made up a chunk of this ground through sales of our online editions and through the launch of a home news delivery service which has great growth potential in an era of more common home working.

Even so, our losses have been heavy and we must throw ourselves into rebuilding sales including via shops.

Many trade union offices which closed during the pandemic used to take orders of the paper each day; as these also move to more flexible models of post-pandemic working, our ability to re-establish such sales is far from certain.

Our paper has always been on the edge financially and the threat these challenges pose to our viability should not be underestimated.

Yet the need for the daily paper of the left has never been greater. The challenges facing the labour movement require a dedicated socialist, anti-imperialist voice in the media.

It is vital that the growth in interest in socialism of recent years is not allowed to dissipate and die, and that we put the Morning Star at the heart of the trade union fightback that is brewing. 

This will mean working together with our readers and supporters across the country to promote the paper and renew and strengthen our ties to trade unions and left campaigns at every level from the branch up.

This will be our task in 2022 and we hope to hold a national conference of readers and supporters to help co-ordinate and plan this work.

As we embark on the next stage of this struggle I would like to pay tribute to the staff at the Morning Star who have worked so hard to ensure we have been produced without fail through the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic.

Newsroom and business team staff alike have achieved things we barely imagined would be possible in March 2020. I would like to pay tribute to departing staff who have contributed a great deal to the paper, including industrial reporter Derek Kotz, parliamentary reporter Lamiat Sabin and a sports editor who really transformed our sports section, Kadeem Simmonds. 

I would like to salute a giant of the Morning Star, our arts and books editor Cliff, who as I mentioned at the start died in August after a long battle with lung cancer and Covid-19.

Cliff was working right to the end and the flood of tributes we have had are testament to his work in giving us the best cultural coverage of any British paper.

Since the last AGM we lost another giant, our longstanding editor and political editor John Haylett, whose leadership from the 1990s undoubtedly saved the paper and who trained and mentored subsequent generations of Morning Star staff, including me; at this AGM we should remember John, too, and his immense contribution over four decades.

And lastly I would like to thank our readers, who not only hit two massive appeal targets on the trot in 2019-20 but are hitting our Fighting Fund target month after month.

This revenue is essential to our survival. Our readers are the most dedicated of any British newspaper and I know so many of you are active too in your unions, your People’s Assemblies, your peace and anti-austerity campaigns. Editing your newspaper is an immense privilege.

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