The press plays a vital role in a free society by shining a light on privilege and power, including on those who run businesses – and by informing and entertaining.
We blame the press for many sins, but there’s some truth in the defence that it’s often just saying what we like to read.
To understand what makes a press ‘story’, it’s useful to hark back to 2003, when a customer wrote to Wetherspoon News complaining about swearing in one of our pubs (see 1, below).
I replied in this magazine that I would ask customers to ‘mind their language’ (2, below).
Believe it or not, that workaday response to a customer in our humble publication became one of the biggest news stories in the world, for a few days (3, below).
It was a leading news headline on BBC and ITV and featured in most local papers – as well as in numerous publications in faraway India, Canada, the US, Australia and elsewhere.
I was even phoned by a relative living in the Swedish ‘outback’, saying that the story was on the front page of the village paper… but why did it go viral?
In truth, the story was given a ‘twist’ by a journalist from a pub industry newspaper (4, below) who said that Wetherspoon might ‘punish’ customers for swearing.
This transformed the story from ‘true, but boring’ into ‘not quite true, but very interesting’.
Some people think that newspapers should always stick to the truth, but, to be fair, the ‘Wetherspoon bans swearing’ story was probably innocent fun – no harm done – and the public knew instinctively that it wasn’t LITERALLY true.
Part (but only part) of the reason for buying a newspaper is to be entertained – no one attending a Billy Connolly or Kevin Bridges show expects them, for example, to stick to the literal truth.
Artistic licence is permitted to embellish a comedian’s monologue, and the same can be true of journalists – with the proviso that, in the process, innocent parties should not be unfairly damaged or duped.
Hence, we have libel laws and controls over press accuracy, including a ‘right of reply’ – to protect what Shakespeare called the ‘bubble reputation’.
However, a vicious side of the press was revealed after 20 March, when pubs and restaurants were closed, without notice, by the government, throwing Wetherspoon and almost the entire pub and restaurant industry into default on bank loans – with hundreds of thousands out of work.
I recorded an internal company video, less than 48 hours after pubs were closed, hoping to reassure employees that they would be ‘furloughed’ and would not lose their jobs – which was happening, on a large scale, elsewhere in the economy.
The video said: “All our endeavours are going to be on trying to make sure that you get your money.”
And an e-mail, which went out with the video, said that “employees will be paid as normal on Friday 27 March”.
In fact, staff were paid on that Friday and have been paid on every Friday since – thanks, above all, to the lightning-quick creation of a furlough scheme and, in our case at least, great flexibility from banks.
However, the press was looking for a ‘story’ with a villain, and the truth was subject to malicious distortion.
Times journalist Caitlin Moran, for example, with more spin than a Shane Warne googly, said that Wetherspoon employees “wouldn’t get paid until the end of April for work they had done” which The Times has now retracted through gritted teeth (5, below).
Fellow Times columnist Alistair Osborne referred to me as a rat, while Caitlin Moran herself, with more venom than a Waqar Younis yorker, called me the worst word in the language, albeit with hyphens replacing some letters – as did the Daily Mail.
Ben Marlow of The Daily Telegraph said that I was “Britain’s worst ever boss” – and scores of press stories made similar accusations.
Maybe the press can justify this hyperbole – it has newspapers to sell in an Internet-ravaged industry.
However, the wackiest behaviour, during these mad March days, was from two MPs, Rachel Reeves and Jo Stevens, who, with Wetherspoon and the hospitality industry at their most vulnerable, tried to turn the story to personal political advantage.
Jo Stevens, MP for Cardiff Central, invented a story on Twitter (6, below) that I had appeared in front of a parliamentary committee (the BEIS) then chaired by Rachel Reeves, MP for Leeds West, and, as a result of that appearance, had “u-turned on decision not to pay 43,000 staff while pubs are shut”.
This was complete cobblers.
I never appeared in front of the BEIS Committee, as both Stevens and Reeves know, and Wetherspoon had already undertaken to pay staff on 27 March.
They must have been bonkers to have made up a fictitious appearance in front of a parliamentary committee – since that could so easily be disproved.
Rachel Reeves added to Twitter ‘disinformation’ and confusion (7, below) by saying that Wetherspoon was at “first refusing to lock down altogether”.
That’s a complete lie.
All Wetherspoon pubs shut, when requested, on Friday 20 March – ask any of our staff or customers.
I wrote to Reeves on 2 April (see pages 14–15 of the Wetherspoon News below) to complain, yet received no reply.
Wetherspoon’s response to the torrent of ‘disinformation’ has been to wade through the press articles, one by one, and to write to the various publications to ask them to print a correction.
Bravo and thanks to publications like the Daily Mirror (8, below), Sky News and local newspapers like the Herald Express and the Loughborough Echo which cared enough about the truth to publish a correction or a Wetherspoon article in response (see examples in the Wetherspoon News on pages 16–17 and other corrections or comments on pages 12–15).
For democracy to work, the press itself, given its huge power, has to be subject to regulation and scrutiny.
If the press is the guardian of democracy, who guards the guardians, as Lord Leveson famously asked in his inquiry into the press, stemming from the phone-hacking scandal.
Politicians themselves, over the years, have championed the campaign to require the media to correct inaccurate statements.
As the public realises, the press often, but not always, bends the truth out of any recognisable shape, in pursuit of a story.
It is disturbing, therefore, that MPs Jo Stevens and Rachel Reeves have, themselves, resorted to blatant fabrication – which, itself, was the source of much media inaccuracy.
Perhaps John Webster, Shakespeare’s contemporary, was right when he said:
“A politician is the devil’s quilted anvil; he fashions all sins on him, and the blows are never heard.”
But just as a free society needs the press, it also needs honest politicians.
Even in our murky and compromised world, the truth will out – that’s why democracy works so well, despite its trials and tribulations.
Click here for the full "Faced with the facts" article from the Wetherspoon News.
Click here for further appendices regarding Rachel Reeves MP.