The Big Story: will the Jewish Chronicle survive?

By Lianne Kolirin

The future of Britain’s Jewish press hangs in the balance after rival rescue packages have spiralled into divisions and confusion.

Staff at both the Jewish Chronicle and the Jewish News were told on 8 April, just hours before Passover, that the newspapers were going into liquidation and that they could lose their jobs.

The Chronicle’s initial announcement said: “Despite the heroic efforts of the editorial and production team at the newspaper, it has become clear that the Jewish Chronicle will not be able to survive the impact of the current coronavirus epidemic in its current form.”

Just days later the Chronicle’s current owner, the Kessler Foundation, unveiled a bid to rescue and merge both titles, with a joint statement appearing on both sites. It said that Richard Ferrer, editor of the News would take over as editor, while Stephen Pollard, the Chronicle’s editor, would “focus more on writing” in his new role as “editor at large”.

Founded in 1841, the Chronicle is considered the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper. A statement on its site celebrates its editorial independence and its broad scope of opinion and readership which it says reflects the “wide diversity of Jewish religious, social and political thought from left to right, Orthodox to secular”.

The News, set up in 1997, is a free sheet, available mostly in London, in places such as kosher shops and libraries.

The announcement sent shockwaves through the community and beyond. In an interview with the Religion Media Centre, Rabbi Jonathan Romain, minister of Maidenhead synagogue in Berkshire and the author of The Jews of England (1988), said of the Chronicle: “There has been a real sense of loss, both as an institution but it’s almost like a personal friend too. The Jewish Chronicle has been a real unifying force within the Jewish community.”

The announcement of a rescue package, published on 14 April, was cautiously optimistic, although it raised questions about how and why the current owners were now rescuing their own troubled entity.

That optimism was dashed within days after a rival bid was launched by a consortium of media, business and political figures, prompting Pollard – the Chronicle’s editor for the past 11 years – to resign.

Tweeting on 17 April, Pollard said he was “resigning with immediate effect as editor of the Jewish Chronicle and as a director of Jewish Chronicle Newspaper Limited”. Describing his role as “the greatest privilege of my career”, he said he was “proud of the paper’s rich history. . . the news we have broken, of the high standards we have held ourselves to, and most of all, of the team that puts in the work to pull this off every week”.

Touched by the “outpouring of goodwill” after the news of the liquidation, Mr Pollard nevertheless made the “extraordinarily difficult and complex decision” to step down. “After searching my conscience, I cannot in good faith lend my support to the Kessler Foundation’s bid to take the paper out of liquidation while there is such a compelling alternative on the table,” he said.

Details of the new takeover bid had been revealed by the Financial Times the previous day. The article reported that “the rival consortium is being fronted by former Downing Street head of communications Robbie Gibb, biographer William Shawcross, former Labour MP John Woodcock, Rabbi Jonathan Hughes of Radlett United Synagogue, and prominent broadcasters John Ware and Jonathan Sacerdoti”.

Listing other significant backers, the FT quoted a source who said the bid aimed to put the publications on “sound financial footing”.

In a separate article in The Spectator, Mr Gibb was quoted as saying: “Like many people, we were shocked and alarmed by the news that [the Chronicle] was going into liquidation and have been working to bring together funding and people to put it on a sound foundation.”

In announcing his resignation, Mr Pollard immediately threw his weight behind the prospective new owners who he said he had “a tremendous deal of personal respect for”.

He added: “Knowing those individuals as I do as lifelong champions of journalistic freedom and the importance of speaking truth to power, I have absolutely no reason to doubt the purity of their intentions, or their commitment to upholding the highest standards of impartiality and editorial freedom.”

According to Mr Pollard, the consortium would “make our creditors whole” and “look to retain many of our current team”. Meanwhile, according to him, the Kessler Foundation had “made no such commitment”. He added: “If there is a chance that the Jewish Chronicle can exit the financial uncertainty it is currently in under new ownership of the calibre that I understand comprises the consortium, that is willing to maintain the paper’s editorial independence and invest in the long-term future of the paper, then that is an outcome that should be cheered on by all of us. And I intend to cheer for it.”

The announcement of the rival bid was met with undisguised anger by the Chronicle’s current chairman, Alan Jacobs. He told the FT: “A bid for the Jewish Chronicle using money from an unidentified source and fronted by a group of individuals who refuse to tell the world anything of their plans looks like a shameful attempt to hijack the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper.”

The original bid appeared to be in tatters by Monday afternoon when the Jewish News issued an updated post on its site to “readers and advertisers”.

Topped with the sub-heading “It’s business as usual for Jewish News”, it read: “Jewish News will be published this Thursday as usual and until further notice. Our website continues to be updated throughout the day. Jewish News is funded and talk earlier this month of going into liquidation was to accommodate a merger which is not currently happening.”

The co-ordinated statements published on 8 April suggested both papers needed to take drastic action to survive the tough media conditions brought on by the coronavirus outbreak. However, the prospect of a merger was not new.

On 13 February, Leo Noé, the businessman and philanthropist who owns the Jewish News , wrote an opinion piece stating that the “most effective” way to safeguard the paper’s future was to “join forces with the Jewish Chronicle”. “A merger secures the future of both titles, while creating an ambitious new media brand underpinned by a shared sense of purpose and commitment to our community,” he said

Though relatively small – the combined circulation of both publications is about 40,000 a week – the Jewish press has considerable influence, most recently bringing to light the scandal of antisemitism within Labour’s ranks.

A former senior staff member at the Chronicle told the Religion Media Centre he had been contacted by friends and acquaintances at both publications, all worried about the future.

Yet financial woes and talks of a prospective merger were certainly nothing new, according to the source. “People have been talking about it for years – it’s been going on for ever,” he said. “Two weeks ago when they first said they were liquidating, it looked like they were using the current climate as an excuse to get on with what they were going to do and write off all the debts at the same time.

“That said, over the past few weeks both businesses would have taken such a hit,” he said, highlighting that advertising for both Passover goods and travel to Israel would have been slashed – creating major funding issues across the sector. That alone would have been enough to “scupper both businesses,” he added.

“It’s heartbreaking. I’ve got friends messaging me from both sides saying they are going to lose their jobs.” There is, however, hope that some form of Jewish press will be rescued. The question, though, is in what capacity.

Rabbi Romain told the Religion Media Centre: “I am sure it will be saved in some form because it is almost inconceivable for the Jewish community not to have a communal voice. The hope is that it will remain an independent and neutral voice and not a factional one, because that would be an enormous shame.”