INTERVIEW 

Punching above its weight

The Jewish Chronicle has a circulation of just over 20,000 but, as the voice of the UK’s Jewish community since 1841, its voice carries far. Ray Snoddy talks to editor Stephen Pollard about the challenges he faces, both political and publishing.

By Ray Snoddy

Punching above its weight
“We are a community newspaper and if you get that wrong, everything goes.”

Stephen Pollard edits what he is happy to call “a community newspaper”, but it’s a very sophisticated community and one facing issues that routinely generate national headlines.

The resignation from the Labour Party of Dame Louise Ellman, the long-serving MP for Liverpool Riverside, accusing Jeremy Corbyn of allowing anti-Semitism to become mainstream in the party, was one.

Another was a poll showing former Labour MP Luciana Berger was favourite to win Finchley and Golders Green after a 26 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats.

The Corbyn factor

And for Pollard who edits the 178 year-old Jewish Chronicle, the oldest continuously published Jewish newspaper in the world, the biggest story of all is Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party.

Pollard who has edited the JC, as it is universally known, for eleven years, used to believe he did not know whether Corbyn was anti-Semitic or not and that he would judge the Labour leader by his actions.

That all changed when Jewish Labour MP Margaret Hodge denounced Corbyn.

“When Margaret Hodge called Corbyn an anti-Semite, we put that on the front page of the JC – her phrase was ‘a racist and anti-Semite’,” says Pollard.

The newspaper has an extensive database of its Jewish readers, ideal for polling.

Stephen Pollard: “I still get a thrill when the paper comes into the office every week.”

A Survation poll after the Hodge attack found that 85 per cent of British Jews believe the Labour leader is an anti-Semite and that 38 per cent would consider leaving the country if Corbyn became prime minister.

“We don’t need to mince our words, this is what people think,” says Pollard who was brought up in a mainstream orthodox kosher household but who says his synagogue now is, or was until the recent move, White Hart Lane, the home of Tottenham Hotspur. He is a great supporter of Spurs supporters being able to call themselves by their traditional nickname – Yids – if they choose to do so.

“I still am, as Jonathan Miller used to put it, Jew-ish,” adds the unobserving Pollard who nonetheless, he says for no very rational reason, does not “eat the pig”.

An indication of how strongly he feels about the Labour leader is demonstrated by a recent tweet linking football with politics.

He replied to a Corbyn tweet supporting the England captain Harry Kane’s determination to take his team off the pitch if it faced racist abuse.

“Does that mean MPs should walk out of the Commons when Britain’s leading racist opens his mouth,” the JC editor asked.

Once the abuse Pollard himself faced came from Islamists, now it’s more likely to come from the Left.

In the face of such controversy, does he still enjoy editing the JC?

Enjoy, he admits, isn’t quite the right word but Pollard explains that “the whole Corbyn thing” has given him a new lease of life.

“It’s huge, it’s important and it matters. It’s not just professional, it’s personal. It matters to me. I don’t want him to become prime minister,” says Pollard who once worked for the Fabian Society, the democratic socialist think tank.

Growing up, Pollard says, he was barely aware of anti-Semitism, aside from being on the receiving end of a couple of stupid remarks.

Before Corbyn sprang to political prominence, Pollard would carry individual stories about anti-Semitic behaviour, say, about a teacher in Scotland accused of Nazi salutes.

Readers, he found, disliked the JC giving prominence to such stories. In response, as a paper of record, he shoe-horned them into a couple of inconspicuous columns.

All that changed in January 2015 when Isis terrorists murdered four Jewish hostages in the kosher supermarket siege in Paris.

“There was a lot of concern in the Jewish community that there would a similar outbreak of terrorism here and anti-Semitism became something we could not shy away from. And then something uniquely British happened, which was Jeremy Corbyn,” says Pollard.

The JC had tracked Corbyn as a humble backbencher and recorded the Middle Eastern groups he met.

The JC editor was galvanised into action in July 2015 by a Sunday Times poll suggesting that Corbyn, who has consistently denied all allegations of racism or anti-Semitism, was ahead in the Labour leadership race.

We don’t need to mince our words, this is what people think.

Questions to answer

Pollard wrote a leader and placed seven questions for Corbyn to answer on the front page of the JC, questions covering allegations such as association with a holocaust denying organisation or calling Hamas or Hezbollah his friends.

“The questions were – give us explanations for these. We were making news and it had an impact. From then on, that has been the story and the reason it has been such a big story is because at every point, Labour has made the situation worse,” Pollard believes.

He says the JC is a unique newspaper that is for many of its readers, part of being a British Jew.

“We are a community newspaper and if you get that wrong, everything goes. That means we cover everything from Israeli elections and Labour anti-Semitism through to a coffee morning in Whetstone,” Pollard explains.

It is a caricature, but a true one, that every copy of the JC is read by four or five people in Jewish households on a Friday night.

There is also the old joke that you if put two Jews in a room, you get three opinions and that is true for the JC.

“We can’t, and we have never wanted to take a monolithic line on things, so we have to try and represent the different strands of the mainstream Jewish community,” says Pollard who says his staff range from the completely secular to the orthodox.

There are no ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews, who wouldn’t read such a paper anyway.

The JC regards itself as being “unambiguously a Zionist pro-Israel paper but it’s not about the government, it’s about the country. We view ourselves as a critical friend,” explains Pollard.

Along the way there have been rows – one of the worst over an advertisement for a Disaster Relief Committee appeal for Gaza. The reason was not the ad per se but the fact that one of the members of the Committee was Islamic Relief.

Over the weekend, Pollard received more than 3,000 emails of complaint including one from a consultant psychiatrist accusing him of being clinically insane to publish such an ad.

The psychiatrist used his work email and Pollard insisted, successfully, that he should be disciplined by his employers.

It’s huge, it’s important and it matters. It’s not just professional, it’s personal.

Circulation challenges

Like almost all newspapers, the JC’s print circulation has been falling, but Pollard notes, less than most.

When he took over, weekly sales were around 32,000; now it’s bumping around the 20,000 mark although now of course there is a website which receives equal billing to the print edition.

Despite considerable reader loyalty, the financial challenge is considerable. At 266,000, the Jewish community is small – much smaller than most outsiders think - and readers die and are not replaced or marry out and lose their sense of Jewishness.

It all added up to an “existential” financial crisis this year mainly because of a pension deficit.

JC’s losses were running at £800,000 a year and there was a pension deficit of £700,000.

There was the additional problem for Pollard that he couldn’t raise money for the paper. You can’t easily appeal to individual readers to help fund pensions rather than journalism.

The Kessler Foundation, the charitable trust which holds 87 per cent of the shares of the JC, managed to clear the pension deficit with the help of twenty anonymous individuals and trusts.

A separate trust protects the editorial independence of the paper.

Losses have fallen to around £100,00 a year and Pollard can see a way towards breaking even at the very least.

The paper is now appealing to its readers to support JC journalism in the way of the Guardian and plans to appoint a fund raiser to approach larger philanthropic institutions.

Pollard, who has written for a wide range of national newspapers including the Daily Express, the Daily Mail and The Times, was president of a free market think tank in Brussels, the Centre for the New Europe when it was suggested he might apply for the JC editorship.

“I thought I’d apply for a bit of fun which was absolutely brilliant because I didn’t say what I thought they wanted to hear. I said what I thought and blow me down, they gave me the job,” says Pollard.

He thought he might stay for five years and never imagined it would stretch to eleven and counting.

We can’t, and we have never wanted to take a monolithic line on things.

Creative leader writing

“I still get a thrill when the paper comes into the office every week. I feel there is such an important job here,” says Pollard who from his past, occupies a place in the lore of Fleet Street that has nothing to do with editing the Jewish Chronicle.

On his last day as a leader writer on the Daily Express before becoming a leader writer for The Times, the young Pollard constructed an acrostic by making the first letter of every paragraph in the leader make up the legend ‘Fuck You Desmond’ in honour of the paper’s owner.

The deed was spotted and the story made it into the Independent on Sunday diary and the offer of a job on The Times was withdrawn.

Years later, Pollard was speaking at a Cambridge Jewish Society dinner and the then owner of the Daily Express was in the audience.

“I gave my talk and ran away to catch the train and Desmond ran after me and I thought, God he is going to deck me. Instead he stuck out his hand and said, “fucking good speech Pollard, you should be writing for the Express again,” says Pollard.

Stephen Pollard has been writing a weekly column for the Daily Express ever since, as well as editing the JC and hoping to continue to break stories and produce good journalism that people want to read whether in print or digital on everything from Israeli politics and Corbyn to community coffee mornings.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.