The New European wasn’t meant to last. As Article 50 is triggered, the pro-Remain paper shows no signs of stopping. Editor Matt Kelly talks about how he plans to challenge Brexit, why he gave Arron Banks a column and what he can learn from The Daily Mail.
The editor of The Daily Mail urged its 1.5 million readers to vote Leave. Triumphing at the annual Press Awards last month to win Newspaper Of The Year, he sounded irked. “I’ve been a profound eurosceptic for years,” said Paul Dacre. “Whatever The New European says.”
The previous gong, the Chairman’s Award, went to The New European, a new paper with a tiny circulation and hardly any staff. “This really is for the 48%,” its editor Matt Kelly told the journalists gathered in a posh London hotel. “I know you’re all a room full of Remainers at heart, even Mr Dacre secretly. I know you’re only plying a cynical Brexit line for commercial purposes and you want to stay in Europe.”
Dacre got that he was joking, Kelly tells me when we meet. But when he launched The New European nine months ago, he never foresaw it would give him a platform to take the piss out of Fleet Street’s most formidable, autocratic editor at the Oscars of British journalism.
The weekend after Britain voted for Brexit, Kelly, who is chief content officer for Archant’s publishing empire of local newspapers and trade magazines, emailed his boss with a “crazy” idea: Now was the best time to do something they had never done and launch a national newspaper.
Risky is a better word than crazy. Papers and websites continue to launch and fail as the internet transforms journalism so fast it leaves even its keenest observers clueless as to what will happen next. In May, daily paper The New Day had closed after just three months of bad sales.
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The New European was only meant to run for four issues. Kelly denies this was to let Archant quietly back out if it failed, saying they simply presumed people would move on as the issue got “boring”. Its first edition was thrown together in nine days. It appeared on July 8 and sold 40,000 copies, a tiny figure compared with other papers but a feat for a brand new title with no advertising or marketing.
Alastair Campbell, now its editor-at-large, rushed to get involved. In November, the paper scored a huge scoop when Tony Blair used its pages to call for Remainers to mobilise against Brexit. Sales fell over the summer but have started rising again. It has gained enough prominence to earn Nigel Farage’s scorn, and praise from Kelly’s old boss at The Mirror, Piers Morgan, both in the same 30 seconds of national TV.
Big names from Fleet Street’s Remain wing write regularly. Campbell has recruited people to write analysis for the Expertise section (where readers are reminded of Michael Gove’s quote: “The country has had enough of experts”) about Brexit’s threat to issues from peace in Northern Ireland to trade. In the week Article 50 was triggered, Nicola Sturgeon, Caroline Lucas and Tim Farron are all in there.
But The New European is not defined by long, earnest articles. Two days after Article 50 was triggered, Kelly and I go through the paper in Soho’s The Groucho Club, a private club popular among those in the arts and media.
The edition has a full-page feature about the week’s “10 worst Leavers”. It awards Welsh Assembly member and former Ukip MP Mark Reckless ‘The Order Of The Snowflake’ for saying Wales needs access to Europe’s Single Market to protect its agriculture industry.
Kelly tells me: “We’re not worried about this idea that there should be a sense of balance. We’re very much in one corner of this argument. We’ll go for the throats of people we think are worthy of attacking.”
There’s a pull-out poster urging readers to “stay angry, fight Brexit” and eight pages of pictures from the pro-EU march in London where it sold subscriptions and handed out branded banners. Kelly’s full-page editorial says Article 50 means there is “absolutely nowhere for the Brexiteer bullshitters to hide.”
The 48-year-old is an industry veteran, who spent 18 years in senior roles at The Daily Mirror, but derides the “weird jargon” journalists adopt. “I’m trying to write in a lucid style about something I’m passionate about,” he says. “Calling someone a bullshitter is a very effective shorthand you could use 20 other long words for.”
This kind of bombast reminds me of The Mail. Paul Dacre is too polite to swear in leaders but knows how to cultivate and galvanise a constituency to protect his brand in changing times.
You cannot flick through the tabloid and doubt who it speaks for. Every item, news or opinion, is presented to simultaneously alarm Middle Britain about the state of the country and reassure them the Mail is on their side about it. Its critics concede this is down to Dacre’s genius. Kelly calls The Mail “the most brilliantly produced newspaper, possibly in Fleet Street’s history”.
Don’t call him ‘The Paul Dacre of Remain’
Does he want to be “the Paul Dacre of Remain?” “Fuck no,” Kelly says immediately. “Absolutely not. I am much more open to reality, I think, than Paul Dacre is. I’m much more open to self-criticism than Paul Dacre is.”
Kelly may respect The Mail’s production but he calls it “violent” and berates its “sinister positions” that have, he thinks, grown worse since the Brexit referendum. He calls out the Enemies Of The People headline, the “incredible sexism” of the ‘Legs-it’ front page and a leader, published the day we meet, that calls the Lib Dems “the real enemy within”.
“I think they’re losing the plot sometimes,” he says of the paper he has a grudging admiration for. “I think Brexit’s encouraged them... [The Mail] is the most extraordinarily well-targetted newspaper but I find it so cynical the way that they organise their paper, the way they touch nerves and excite people in a very negative way, make people fearful, anxious - give people a wrong view of Britain, a very warped view of Britain... I find it a really insidious influence in society.”
Kelly is also appalled by its emphasis on immigrants, singling out its recent coverage of “foreign” truck drivers who drive while using their mobiles. “That chronic, almost Pavlovian experiment of 10 years or more about immigration, immigration, immigration. All they had to do was ring that bell when the referendum came.”
Kelly hates that focus on immigrants but he intends to learn from it. Left-wing media “play far too nicely”, he says, and wants to emulate The Mail’s “unwavering” message about the EU. “We present the other side of the argument much more than the right-wing media does,” he says.
“The Guardian has this thing called Bubble Buster where they present five articles each day from opinions that are vehemently opposed to the opinions they hold. You can just never imagine the Daily Mail doing that.
“I think, if we’re serious about making people think about the reality of Brexit, we’ve got to perhaps just be more focussed about delivering a consistent message about Brexit in the way that they have done about immigration for so long.
“The other thing about The Mail: They know this is not over. There’s no complacency. Not an ounce of complacency. That’s another thing I think I can learn from.”
The edition Kelly and I have in front of us is evidence of his openness to self-criticism. In it, journalist Lucy Pasha-Robinson attacks the media for being so male. She saw The New European website listed 18 men and six women as contributors and rang Kelly to complain. He suggested she write a piece criticising the paper in its own pages.
Why ‘The Bad Boy Of Brexit’ writes for the paper
But the best evidence is who else Kelly got to write for it. Arron Banks, the millionaire, self-described “Bad Boy of Brexit” who delights in offending Remainers even more than Farage, wrote a column with a “Snowflake advisory”.
As a Remainer from Merseyside, Kelly should be doubly offended by Banks. The former Ukip donor not only relishes in gloating about Brexit’s referendum victory but has also said he was “sick of hearing” about the Hillsborough disaster, which Kelly covered as a young journalist. Kelly calls this a “stupid thing to say” but it was his idea to recruit Banks.
“Every time I’ve spoken to him, he’s been a really nice guy, very courteous, interesting, wants to hear what I think, nice guy,” Kelly says. Readers rebelled when his column appeared but Kelly wants him to stay. “He’s an intelligent guy. Look at what he says, not the way he says it. There’s a lot of rational argument there... It’s no good saying ‘piss off, I don’t like you’. We’ve got to challenge them line by line, argument by argument and show that we are on the side of the angels.”
There is one Brexiter Kelly delights in annoying. He loved watching Farage mock The New European as he argued with Campbell on Good Morning Britain. Giving Farage a column would be a Brexiter too far. Kelly says Ukip’s former leader is already “overexposed”.
Campbell has been instrumental in introducing people to the paper. “He knows everyone from Bill Clinton down,” Kelly says. “He’s an obsessive character. When he’s into something, my god he’s into it. I maybe get 20 emails a day from Alastair with ideas and feedback, introductions to great people.”
Big names have written for the paper but no one who agrees with its unconditional opposition to Brexit has the political muscle to do much about it.
Unlike Scottish independence-backing The National - another paper launched to speak for a referendum’s losers - Kelly’s paper has no big political party to cheer on. This doesn’t faze him. “We do talk to a big constituency of people. It’s just that they’re spread out across the entire political spectrum.”
Not all of the 48% who voted Remain still oppose Brexit but Kelly wants to speak to the “hardcore” among them. Around a fifth of Britons want the referendum result to be ignored. Kelly says: “My failing is, I’m only selling 20,000 to a constituency that is probably millions large.”
Appealing to constituencies like this will, he adds, become more and more important to journalists. This is why he wanted to launch a newspaper, not a website. “Someone sits on the Tube and pulls out The New European, they’re making a statement about themselves,” he says.
“People every week tweet photos of themselves reading it and invariably there’s a croissant and a double espresso on the side. They’re saying: ‘Look how European I am’.”
As circulations plummet and readers have more choice than ever, Kelly thinks newspapers have tried to “be too many things to too many people”. Advertisers are being forced to consider what working with publications says about them and readers are “becoming much more self-defining in the media they choose to read”.
He warns that journalists who don’t know what their paper stands for “are in a lot of trouble”.
Kelly took a strange route to being a editing a national newspaper. Though both his parents were journalists, he wanted to be a lawyer but didn’t get good enough A Levels and was running a fairground ride when his mum arranged a week’s work experience at a local paper.
He knew journalism was for him “when they offered to keep paying me”. He had a low boredom threshold and loved how the job forced him to think quickly about different issues, including how to make money from it. “I find the whole thing an enormous intellectual challenge but also so much fun,” he says.
When Kelly talks about The New European’s future, his passion for the EU and head for business seem out of sync. He says Archant would close the paper if it starts losing money saying “there’s no sentimentality to it”.
He then adds: “That’s a lie. There is, from me. But not from me with my business head on.”
Though its profit is marginal, nearly every edition has made money thanks to the high £2 cover price and low costs. Just five Archant staff were brought over to work on it. Kelly assures me Campbell isn’t on “George Osborne money”.
As long as it keeps making money, Archant will keep it going, he adds. He’d love to expand the European culture section and ponders raising the price and promoting it as a news magazine like The New Statesman or The Spectator which, like Kelly’s effort, are inseparable from their politics and sell in much lower numbers than newspapers.
Kelly “hopes” the paper will last as long as the Brexit process, however long that is. The challenge, he says, is to make it interesting enough so readers feel “it’s part of their lives and says something about them still” after it.
When I ask what role journalists have as we leave the EU, the Remainer in Kelly comes across more than the businessman. He tells me he feels “really bad” for people in the northeast, who he feels were misled by the press about Brexit and now stand to suffer from it.
We’ve got to challenge them line by line, argument by argument and show that we are on the side of the angels.”
“Journalism’s got a massive obligation to let people know the truth about what’s happening,” he says. “I think that’s the single biggest failure in journalism in the last 12 months.
“We’ve not been interested in the truth about what’s been happening. We’ve been interested in pushing an argument.”
But, I say, The New European’s focus isn’t on facts, it’s on pushing an argument. “That’s a really valid criticism. There’s no doubt we’re in a bubble and we are promoting a bubble,” he says.
He defends the paper, saying it rigorously checks facts more than its rivals and hosts a range of columnists like Tim Farron, Keir Starmer and Bonnie Greer who, while resisting Theresa May’s version of Brexit, disagree on how to do it.
He adds: “I feel there’s so much opposition on the other side in media that anything that represents a platform for the other side of the argument is valuable right now.”