'Fantastic timing': a baptism of fire at the Jewish Chronicle
After leaving the Express in anger, Stephen Pollard is relishing his new role.
Sunday 11 January 2009
Stephen Pollard has gone down in Fleet Street lore for having performed the ultimate act of Reggie Perrin bravura. When dismissed from the Daily Express as a leader writer in 2001, he used his last article to deliver a message to the paper's proprietor, Richard Desmond, spelling the words "Fuck you Des- mond" with the first letter of every line.
"I regret it completely, 100 per cent totally," Pollard says now. "It was a really stupid thing to do."
This moment of madness has, fortunately, not damaged his career. Seven weeks ago he took up the editorship of The Jewish Chronicle, the weekly national newspaper that he calls "Israel's candid friend". Israel's assault on Gaza has been, for him, "fantastic timing – if you're an editor you couldn't want a better story". He has been forced to stamp his mark on the paper sooner than he might have expected.
Pollard is an ardent defender of Israel – some say too ardent – arguing it is Israel's duty to protect its civilians from Hamas's ongoing assault. "The daughter of our chairman – her house was blown up this week. If she had been in her house, she would be dead. All I'm saying is, you have to understand why the Israelis are acting as they are, in defence."
And he is angry with the media's presentation of the Gaza conflict, not least The Independent's. The BBC's Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, is also guilty of "hopeless bias". But his real beef is with the BBC itself.
"My problem is not so much bias; everyone has views. My problem is with the very nature of the BBC. I object to the fact I have to pay for something I don't want to hear. If you want a television but don't want to watch the BBC, you still have to pay. It's a ridiculous anachronism in a digital age."
Conversation becomes heated when I accuse him of bias in his own paper. The lead news item on the JC website when we meet is a story about an attack on Israel from two rockets fired from Lathat "lightly wounded two people". This soon after an Israeli bomb killed 40 Palestinian children in an undefended school.
"But don't forget who our readership is. They are interested in getting the news about Israel. It's not a biased view. We are presenting one aspect of all the news that is going on. Nobody gets all their news from the JC; we're a complementary news source."
If Pollard's position is occasionally confusing, so are his politics. He is proud to call himself a neo-con but at the same time has long identified himself as left-wing. Having always voted Labour, he would go for Cameron if an election were called tomorrow. "Under no circumstances would I vote for Brown, who I think is a liar and a disgrace to his office."
After giving up on his childhood ambition to be a barrister – "I basically wanted to be Rumpole" – Pollard became a researcher to Peter Shore, the unusually Euro-sceptic Labour MP. After several years working for left-wing think-tanks, including the Fabian Society, he was asked to do a stint writing leaders for the Evening Standard. It was his first taste of journalism, a profession he had always considered "grubby". Work on the Daily Express, Times, Independent and Sunday Telegraph followed. "Once you've had a lucky break, journalism is simply about delivering the right numbers of words on time," he says. "That's all editors want."
Although he had a "normal, nominally orthodox north-west London Jewish upbringing", it wasn't until his mid-thirties that he began to think about Judaism seriously. It was at a dinner party with old university friends that Pollard first felt loyal to Israel. "It was the time of the first Intifada and everyone was boycotting Israel. When I asked whether that included boycotting Dixons, which is owned by Stanley Kalms, they said "yes, Israel, Jews, it's all the same thing". They were literally saying they would boycott anything Jewish. I was quite shocked. It was then I started to feel more Jewish. Until then it had never crossed my mind that anti-semitism was a real issue. But then I thought whoa! Hold on a minute."
Pollard has already stripped out the celebrity features in the JC and plans to put an emphasis on serious comment. He is proud of his latest signing, Daily Mail sports writer Martin Samuel. The popular but neglected "community" slot at the back – assorted pictures of family events – is to become "the literal and metaphorical heart of the paper" as an eight-page pull-out. And there are plans to beef up regional coverage, combined with a roadshow tour of events round the country, including a JC Question Time.
Feedback has so far been mostly positive. As he says: "Jews are certainly not backwards in coming forwards with their opinions."
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