3 Fired Tribune Staffers Fact-Check Bhaskar Sunkara’s Statement

Originally published here in response to Sunkara’s statement posted on the Tribune’s Tumblr in response to Mike Elk’s Payday Report article. Formatting by PW.

Bhaskar Sunkara: Jacobin was made aware late last year that Tribune magazine was in a dire financial situation. We were contacted first by former supporters of the magazine who were concerned that it was likely to cease publication. In January 2018, this outcome came to pass.”

Mike Parker: For someone who has just bought the title, Mr Sunkara clearly knows nothing about the recent history of Tribune. The paper had been in a ‘dire financial situation’ for many years, a result of political and economic circumstances, diminishing print readership and the effects of social media. It had been effectively bankrupt for most of that time, but continued to be published because it was subsidised first by trade unions and then by two ‘socialist millionaires’. This is not an unusual situation — it was the case at one time with the New Statesman and continues to be the case with Red Pepper. And, indeed, almost every UK daily newspaper would be effectively bankrupt if they were not subsidised by their proprietors’ other businesses. The ‘former supporters’ did not see fit to share their concerns with the staff, who were already actively seeking alternative support because of their dissatisfaction with the then proprietor, Owen Oyston. When we heard that Jacobin was interested in taking over the magazine, however, we were naturally very pleased.

BS: “During this time we entered into negotiations with Owen Oyston and London Publishing Trading to try to save the magazine. It transpired during these negotiations that Tribune had spent more than £360,000 in the past three years and taken in negligible revenue — something in the region of £10,000 per year.”

MP: “That should be London Publications (Trading) Ltd. See below for comments on the spending and income.”

BS: “No accurate subscription data was maintained. In fact, in the days since we’ve relaunched the magazine we’ve heard from dozens of former subscribers who paid for Tribune year after year and received no magazine, despite contact and protestations. Some recent examples of this include a 16-year-old who was bought a subscription for his birthday by his grandparents and received nothing at all, and an elderly woman who had read Tribune for more than forty years but who had received no magazine for five full years of paid subscription.”

MP: “The maintenance of subscriptions, and other management functions, was the responsibility of Owen Oyston’s staff in Blackpool, and the magazine’s editor Chris McLaughlin. The editorial staff — Ian Hernon, George Osgerby and Mike Parker — expressed deep concern on many occasions at editorial conferences about the subs situation and the lack of promotion or marketing, but only McLaughlin attended meetings with Oyston and his team in Blackpool. Mike Parker collected mail from our postal address — a job that was McLaughlin’s responsibility, but which he didn’t do — and passed business and subs correspondence to McLaughlin, who was supposed to forward subscription material to Blackpool. It should be noted that Chris McLaughlin is the only member of Tribune’s former staff that Mr Sunkara has seen fit to re-employ.”

BS: “Clearly, this was a deeply dysfunctional situation. In addition to the above, printers had not been paid and contributors were often ignored when requesting money owed to them for their writing. Tribune’s infrastructure was also in a dire condition. The magazine had launched two Facebook accounts in recent years and lost access to both. Its Twitter account lay dormant for more than a year. Its website was not properly secured and readers would receive warning signs when trying to access content.”

MP: “The situation was indeed deeply dysfunctional, a fact recognised by the editorial staff, who continued to bring out the paper, as was their job, every fortnight in these stressful conditions. However, Mr Sunkara is lying when he says printers had not been paid — they were paid fortnightly, and would not have printed the paper otherwise. The staff were not aware of any occasion, while they were working on the paper, that printers were not paid. It is also a lie that contributors went unpaid — for the simple reason that, with the exception of cartoonists, who received a nominal amount, those contributors offered their work for free, out of solidarity. That was not an ideal situation, but it was one the contributors were prepared to accept, and had done so for many years. As far as Facebook and Twitter were concerned, the editorial staff again regularly expressed their view that creating an online presence ought to be a priority. Once again, however, this was the responsibility of the editor and the management team. The editorial staff were responsible for uploading the latest copy to the website, but the structure and management of that website was in the hands of Owen Oyston’s tech manager in Blackpool.”

BS: “Given all of this, it is not surprising the magazine was effectively bankrupt as of the beginning of this year.”

MP: “This was not why the magazine was ‘effectively bankrupt’. See first reply above.”

BS: “Unfortunately, the negotiations to try to save the magazine were not easy. Tribune’s enormous debts made it almost impossible to take over the company. Many months of discussions passed with without resolution. London Publishing Limited representatives wrote to us that they were prepared to ‘shelve’ the project for a number of years until they found a buyer rather than let it go for a low cost.”
“However, court proceedings in the Oyston vs Belokon case opened a door of possibility again. Shortly thereafter we were offered a deal in which London Publishing would sell Jacobin the Tribune name for a steep sum. After a number of weeks trying to negotiate a more reasonable price (for a magazine that was bankrupt), we eventually made the decision that saving Tribune was worth the cost and agreed to pay.”

MP: “The editorial team were not privy to the details of the negotiations between Jacobin and London Publications (Trading) Ltd, ie Owen Oyston. But Ian Hernon and Mike Parker did make a trip to Blackpool for a meeting with Oyston to try to persuade him to reduce the financial demands he was making, if he genuinely wanted Tribune to continue, as he claimed, and to facilitate Jacobin’s purchase. We were sadly not successful, partly, I think, because Jacobin appeared too willing to pay a ridiculous price for something that Mr Sunkara himself says was effectively bankrupt.”

BS: “During this time Jacobin also undertook to repay former staff members who were owed money by Owen Oyston and had taken out a claim. In reality, with Oyston facing a £30 million court judgement, the prospect of this claim being paid by that channel was minimal. Jacobin volunteered — with no legal requirement — to pay the former staff 70% of what they claimed from Owen Oyston. We did this months before any deal was agreed, paying out a significant sum with no guarantee we would ever finalise the takeover.”

MP: “After Oyston withdrew his support (and he did so at a month’s notice, after having previously stated that he would continue publishing the paper until a new backer was found), the staff of Tribune made a claim against Oyston for unpaid salary, holiday pay etc which was being pursued on their behalf by their union, the National Union of Journalists. According to Mr Sunkara’s telephone conversations with Hernon, Osgerby and Parker, Jacobin did not ‘volunteer’ to pay this claim; Mr Sunkara told us that Oyston had made this a condition of the sale of the title to Jacobin. Mr Sunkara said that his ‘business plan’ could not be juggled enough to pay the full amount, but only 70%, and we would have to withdraw the claim against Oyston so that the sale of the title could go ahead. We agreed to this with some reluctance, in order to facilitate that deal, and only because in those same telephone calls Mr Sunkara had said that he wanted us to be involved in the planning of the relaunched title and suggested that we would have work come September. If he had not made those offers we would have taken our chances with the claim against Oyston. Mr Sunkara has been claiming elsewhere that the payments were a ‘severance’ deal. This is an unconscionable lie. There was no severance. Severance was never mentioned in any communication, verbal or written, with Mr Sunkara, and if it had been, we would have required the full sum we were claiming from Oyston, not 70%. Finally, I do not know if Jacobin really did pay out ‘a significant sum with no guarantee we would ever finalise the takeover’, but if that is the case, Mr Sunkara is a fool, not a serious businessman.”

BS: As the above facts make clear, the letters published recently by former staff members Ian Hernon, Mike Parker and George Osgerby are not an accurate portrayal of the long path that led to Tribune’s rescue and relaunch.

MP: “The ‘facts’ are in our letters, available to read at here. Clearly Mr Sunkara would not recognise an ‘accurate portrayal’ if it jumped out of his cinnamon latte and punched him in the head.”

BS: “While we appreciate all of those who have contributed to Tribune over many years, the claim in this instance that their stewardship of the project in the last three years ‘made it possible’ for Jacobin to take over the magazine is entirely false. In fact, recent years made it almost impossible due to the scale of debt accrued, and the neglect of the magazine’s infrastructure and subscriber base.”

MP: “If it had not been for the efforts of Hernon, Osgerby and Parker, who all worked on rates lower than the recognised UK Living Wage, and their willingness to take editorial responsibility in the face of management and administrative neglect and an almost invisible editor, Tribune would not have continued to be published up until January 2018 — not because of its accrued debts (which were non-existent, since all the bills were paid by Oyston), or because of its ‘effective bankruptcy’ (since it had been ‘effectively bankrupt’ for more than a decade), but because there wouldn’t have been anybody to produce it. Hernon, Osgerby and Parker were not responsible for the ‘stewardship’ of the paper, and to suggest, as Mr Sunkara does here, that we were responsible for the dire state of the business is a contemptible attempt to suggest that workers should take responsibility for management failings — and to avoid responsibility for his own gross dishonesty.”

BS: “Ian, Mike and George’s proposal to Jacobin — that we take over the magazine as proprietor but continue to run it with the same staff and on the same basis that had led it to bankruptcy — was clearly not viable. The fact that this was the level of engagement they were willing to offer save Tribune reflects a lack of seriousness about the scale of dysfunction in the former arrangement and the task at hand to prevent the magazine from shuttering permanently.”

MP: “We made no such proposal, simple as that. Of course we wanted to continue to work for Tribune, and we certainly wished to continue to be employed, but all suggestions about our continued involvement were made first by Mr Sunkara, though they were promises he reneged on when it suited him. To accuse us of a ‘lack of seriousness’ and once again to suggest that we, the editorial staff, were responsible for the magazine’s financial and management problems, is contemptible. That Mr Sunkara appears not to know the difference between editorial responsibilities and those of management suggests that he isn’t fit to be publisher of a kindergarten newsletter, let alone a serious socialist magazine with a long and distinguished history.”

BS: Earlier this summer, subsequent to the communications they inaccurately reference, we informed Ian, Mike and George that they would not be included in the relaunch issue. Tribune needed a new start and we defend this editorial decision. However, we offered each of them a paid commission in the follow-up issue and clearer communication about how they continue to pitch and write for us moving forward on favourable terms. We received no reply of substance to this offer — until the publication of these letters.

MP: “As detailed in our letters, substantive offers of work from Mr Sunkara and Mr Burtenshaw effectively dried up once we had accepted the money that Jacobin agreed to pay us, not out of the goodness of their hearts, but because Oyston made them. We were not ‘offered a paid commission’; in his last email to me, Mr Burtenshaw asked for pitches. As I said in my original letter, I would have been prepared to accept that Tribune needed a new start and new blood if we had been told that from the start. But we were not. We were misled and lied to and in the end treated with contempt, and this ‘statement’ from Mr Sunkara, with all its distortions, inaccuracies and ignorance, is proof of that.”

BS: Clearly, their dissatisfaction with the transition is regrettable. But we stand by our actions entirely. The choice for Tribune was closure, coming into the hands of an even more politically-hostile proprietor or regeneration under new management.

MP: “Once again, it is not the transition that dissatisfies us but the lies and hypocrisy. For so-called socialists to behave like this suggests that a ‘politically hostile’ proprietor has already got his hands on Tribune.”

BS: “We did make an effort to ensure continuity. Chris McLaughlin, Tribune’s editor for more than ten years, was offered a position as editor-at-large. We were unaware until recently of the internal disputes between staff in the magazine in recent years. No statement on this was ever communicated to us by Ian, Mike and George. But in our view this only sheds further light on the scale of problems Tribune faced.”

MP: “There were no internal disputes. There were three editorial staff working efficiently and in a comradely fashion to produce a fortnightly socialist newspaper in difficult circumstances — plus an largely absentee editor who played little or no role in the day-to-day production of the publication, who is now Mr Sunkara’s figleaf.”

BS: “Jacobin has no wealthy backers. We are a relatively-small left-wing magazine. We’ve taken a substantial gamble with Tribune, putting money into to trying to help out former staff, paying for legal advice during the takeover, rebuilding the magazine’s infrastructure, setting up a new website, producing a viable commercial design, and an innumerable list of other investment needed to bring Tribune back from the dead.”

MP: “Mr Sunkara didn’t put money in to ‘help out’ former staff. He foolishly allowed himself to be conned into paying too much money for Tribune and only gave us the money we were claiming from Oyston (claiming from Oyston, remember, not Jacobin) because Oyston forced him to.”

BS: Moving forward, Tribune is committed to running a better operation. We support all of our contributors, we will not stiff printers (in fact, we have arranged to print with union labour), we will respect our subscribers (and volunteer to make recompense to all those who were neglected under the previous management). And more importantly, we will produce the kind of high-quality socialist writing that Tribune’s 80-year history demands.

MP: “We certainly hope Mr Sunkara can run a better operation than Oyston’s management team did. But we hear that not all Jacobin’s subscribers are happy bunnies…”

“We invite people to judge Messrs Sunkara and Burtenshaw on their treatment of fellow socialists. On the basis of our experience, the jury will not be sympathetic.”


Additional comment from George Osgerby:

Dear Bhaskar,

In common with Ian Hernon and Mike Parker, I don’t expect a reply, but
if you and your team would care to respond to
https://letterstotrib.home.blog/ we would be happy to hear from you.

I rather doubt you will wish correct any of the inaccuracies in your
statement, although you may conclude that honesty, openness and
integrity should be integral to ‘democratic socialism’.

Unfortunately, at present, it seems that you are not the messiah, you
are a very naughty boy.

Nevertheless, good luck with your ‘Tribune’ venture. You may need it.

Regards,
George


Additional comment from Ian Hernon:

Dear Bhaskar,

I was hoping that our “correspondence” was over and, after the last nine months I could just move on. But your statement on Tumblr needs to be answered.

For a start, never did the three of us expect to keep our old jobs under the new management but we did expect — more fool us — that you would honour your promises, verbally and in emails, that we would have a role in both the preparations for the relaunch and afterwards.

I take exception to your claim that we were responsible for bankruptcy and your denial that we kept it going for three years so that you would have something to buy.

As you well know, despite your statement, you were well aware of the christribune problem. Previously we had been told that he and Oyston were sorting out the subscription, etc, problems, but nothing was done and I did not have the authority to step in myself.

All that is now ancient history. What really got to us was when we accidentally found out about the relaunch — not only were we not invited, but not even informed — and the message inviting us to put in “pitches” for second or third issues which, if we were ever paid, would take us well into next year.

What really grieves me is that all this nonsense, before we brokered the deal and after, has diverted attention from the real Left’s job of focusing on an incompetent, hopeless and cruel Tory government. Have we learnt nothing?

And having seen the “product” on line, I am glad to not be part of it.

I don’t expect a response to this — why break the habit of a lifetime?

All the best,

-Ian H