Stephen Daisley

Could this rival bid give the Jewish Chronicle a long-term future?

Could this rival bid give the Jewish Chronicle a long-term future?
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The Jewish Chronicle might be rescued but if it is, it’s not going to be pretty. The world’s oldest Jewish newspaper announced, alongside the Jewish News, that it was going into liquidation on the eve of Passover. A few days later however, the paper's current owner, the Kessler Foundation, unveiled a bid to take both titles out of liquidation by merging them. Kessler has claimed to be securing the JC’s long-term future before, with evidently limited success, but there seemed to be no alternative. 

Not any longer. A consortium of media, business and political figures has come forward with a rival bid. It claims that it can actually deliver on talk of keeping the newspaper in business for the long term. But this intervention has not been met with open arms and glad tidings by the old guard. Last night, JC chairman Alan Jacobs told the FT the consortium’s bid was ‘a shameful attempt to hijack the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper’. Liquidating the paper on the eve of Passover should have given Kessler a free run. The consortium, assembled with remarkable speed, has given the liquidators a real choice. 

Someone involved in the fresh proposal told me their consortium is concerned about the ‘impartiality and independence’ of the JC going forward. They have a big hitter on their side in that regard: JC editor Stephen Pollard this afternoon resigned from his post to give his backing to the bid. The consortium also believes they can put the title on a more stable financial footing. This is where Kessler’s past promises come in. Announcing additional investment from Kessler last June, Jacobs said the JC would ‘be able to continue to serve our community for many years to come’. The fact these extra funds couldn’t sustain the paper for even a year is one of the strongest arguments in favour of new ownership and a fresh approach. 

Another thing the consortium has going for it is the talent at the top of the ticket. Their slate is headed up by ex-BBC man and Downing Street communications director Robbie Gibb. It also includes John Ware, the documentary maker behind the BBC Panorama expose of Labour anti-Semitism, former Labour MP John Woodcock, prominent rabbi Jonathan Hughes, historian William Shawcross and broadcaster Jonathan Sacerdoti. These are well-respected figures in the Jewish community but also across business, journalism and public affairs. Whatever the merits of their proposals, the people putting them forward have serious credibility. A consortium insider tells me they are ‘passionate believers in the newspaper’ and would ‘put the Jewish Chronicle on sound footing for years to come’. The source adds:

We want to put it on a whole new management structure, modernise it, and keep the newspaper as a newspaper. Their proposal would require half the staff losing their jobs. We would make changes but not as a result of not having the funds. We would modernise it and end this yo-yo situation where every few months we lurch from crisis to crisis.

This is where the gloves come off. My insider says ‘many brilliant journalists on the Jewish Chronicle are being let down by the current regime’. In a statement released last night, the consortium said they were ‘deeply disappointed with the Kessler Foundation's conduct during this process and consider it a cynical move to have put the paper into liquidation during the Jewish festival of Passover and over the bank holiday weekend’. This, they say, was ‘a move designed to rush through an outcome that maintains their control, but is clearly to the detriment of the paper and its creditors’.

By contrast, the consortium claims, it would bring ‘vision and competence’ to the ownership and management of the paper. My source could not guarantee that every outgoing employee would remain in post were the consortium’s offer to be accepted. Nor is it clear what would become of the Jewish News.

Meanwhile, the consortium is pledging to ‘make all creditors and staff whole’ and make ‘substantial investment of millions of pounds over the next five years’. That is what will matter most to the liquidators but it is important that, as well as creditors getting paid, the paper’s integrity is kept whole. This is a newspaper which has to be able to tackle sensitive issues within British Jewry and controversial subjects in national politics and social affairs.

The insider confirmed to me that the consortium, which represents a range of political opinion, would not change the JC’s editorial line. It would also offer to keep editor Stephen Pollard in post, in contrast to the Kessler Foundation’s proposal to replace him with Jewish News editor Richard Ferrer.

The Kessler Foundation tells me this is a change in the consortium’s previously stated position on the editorship but given the eleventh-hour nature of the rescue package, it’s to be expected that holding language would have been put in place here and there and even important details left subject to change. Unlike Kessler, the consortium hasn’t had years to secure the Jewish Chronicle’s future.

Robbie Gibb tells me: ’Like many people, we were shocked and alarmed by the news that it was going into liquidation and have been working to bring together funding and people to put it on a sound foundation.’

The liquidators will make their decision but now it will be a real decision. Undoubtedly, the Kessler Foundation has given a great deal to the JC and steered it through difficult times but the consortium’s bid, on its face at least, seems to offer love and money and you need both to run a great community newspaper. The JC is too important to have it constantly heaving from financial crisis to crisis, with the very existence of a 180-year-old British Jewish institution in question at a time when it could scarcely be more necessary. The Jewish Chronicle needs a future, not another promissory note. A rescue attempt is not a hijacking.