Tribune Former Staff

The Tribune Relaunch

Three Letters to
Bhaskar Sunkara

NB: We have been blocked from commenting on the Tribune Twitter and Facebook feeds, and now also from Bhaskar Sunkara’s Twitter feed. As of October 13 we have not received a single personal response from anyone involved in the management of Tribune, any of the new magazine’s contributor’s, or it’s cheereladers, incuding supposed champions of ‘workers’ like Len Mccluskey, Owen Jones, Jon Trickett MP or the Morning Star. That’s socialism, folks.

We have put our original comments to Bhaskar here, along with Tribune’s statement, with our rebuttal, and other relevant comments.

 

October 11

 

Yesterday morning Owen Jones posted about how thrilled he was to have received his first copy of the relaunched Tribune. We posted a polite reply, asking if he didn’t think being a cheerleader for someone who had shafted three fellow socialist journos and trade unionists wasn’t just a bit, well, hypocritical bearing mind his frequent calls for socialist solidarity. We have now been blocked from commenting on Owen’s posts (though we can still ‘share’ them!), and our comment has been deleted. Amusingly, another poster on the same thread said simply, ‘Owen, you’re such a wanker’, and at last view it was still there. So it’s obviously more acceptable to call him a wanker than suggest he’s a hypocrite. That’s socialism, folks. And that’s Owen Jones.

 

September 27

 

The Guardian ran an article on its Media Page, written by Media Editor Jim Waterson, which repeated without challenge some of Bhaskar Sunkara’s lies (see Sunkara’s statement below). We replied as follows:

Dear Jim

Your article concerning the relaunch of Tribune (Sep 27) repeated unchallenged a number of lies that have been disseminated by Bhaskar Sunkara and Ronan Burtenshaw following publication of our open letters.

1) The magazine did not have debts of £300,000 – at least, not unless the owner Owen Oyston decided he was in debt to himself.

2) The website was not ‘covered in security notices’. It did suffer a few periods of downtime (the longest about two weeks) over a period of two years or so due to persistent hacking. Dealing with this was the responsibility of a tech manager employed by Owen Oyston’s businesses in Blackpool.

3) Non-functioning media accounts were also the responsibility of ‘Blackpool’, and the editor Chris McLaughlin.

4) Sunkara did not let us know that ‘the model they were operating Tribune under couldn’t work any more’; he gave us little indication what his plans for Tribune were, beyond, on several occasions, assuring us that we were part of them.

5) We made no ‘proposal’ of any kind about the future of Tribune, beyond hoping that we would be part of it and being assured that this would be the case.

6) Tribune was ‘Dead’ because Owen Oyston withdrew his financial support after his court loss to Valery Belokon and the order to pay £30m+, after which he needed every penny he could find down the back of his many sofas.

7) Claiming that we showed a ‘lack of seriousness’ about the future of Tribune is a slander, not least since we did our best to facilitate Jacobin’s purchase of the title, efforts which included a meeting in Blackpool at which we persuaded Oyston to reduce his demands for the title from the £100,000 on which his accountant was insisting to about £50,000 (though this was still more than any sensible businessman would have paid).

8) Sunkara did not pay us any money ‘voluntarily’. He paid us 70% of the sum we were claiming from Oyston only because Oyston made it a condition of the sale of the title that he do so. We only accepted the 70% figure because Sunkara led us to believe we would be involved in the relaunch.

I hope you will feel it is reasonable to correct the claims made by Sunkara in your piece. A more detailed rebuttal of claims made by Sunkara in the statement he has published is available (along with his text) at http://www.letterstotrib.home blog.

Best regards

Mike Parker, George Osgerby, Ian Hernon
We received no response, so wrote further as follows:
Dear Jim
We are sorry that you have not found it possible to correct the lies of Bhaskar Sunkara you reported without challenge in your article of September 27 regarding the relaunch of Tribune – nor even, indeed, felt able to acknowledge our email. We would put this down to the fact you are a busy man and we are just fellow journalists of little import, were it not for the fact that your negligence accurately reflects the Guardian’s fast growing reputation for its abject failure to report the truth.
Best regards,
Mike, George & Ian
October 5
Private Eye carried a piece which was, unusually, fairly accurate:
Time of Trib-ulation
TRIBUNE is dead, long live Tribune. The ailing journal of the Labour left was relaunched amid much fanfare at the party conference last week, featuring a hold new design and exciting new contributors (Owen Jones, for it is he). But are the loss-making title’s troubles over? Far from it.
The new owner, hipster New York socialist Bhaskar Sunkara, is fending off claims from Tribune’s former staff that when he acquired the paper’s assets from lovable rapist Owen Oyston he agreed to pay them 70 percent of their outstanding wages on the understanding there would be work for them at the relaunched title — work which never materialised.
The staffers heard nothing more until they discovered Tribune was relaunching without them. In response, Sunkara wailed last week that it was “not viable” to pay the debts of honour because Tribune was “effectively bankrupt”.
What Sunkara seems to prize most is the chance to cash in on Tribune’s still-revered name and history: the cover of the launch issue features pisspoor caricatures of George Orwell, Nye Bevan and other famous ex-contributors. More than 2,000 subscribers are said to have signed up already, and 200 people attended its fringe event at last week’s Labour conference.
“Hundreds of trade unionists have celebrated the return of Labour left magazine Tribune,” the ecstatic Morning Star reported. The hack who wrote the story, Marcus Barnett, forgot to tell readers he is also associate editor of the new Tribune.
Tribune certainly isn’t short of trade union overseers. Marcus Barnett is himself a former RMT official; Unite assistant chief of staff Adrian Weir sits on the mag’s advisory board; and the Communication Workers’ Union has been promised another board position. This doesn’t bode well for editorial independence. Ex-editor Chris McLaughlin once spiked a light-hearted article that poked fun at the CWU, under pressure from union spin doctors, as well as a more serious investigation into a Unite leadership election.
Weir’s superior at Unite is the implacable aristo-Stalinist Andrew Murray, who sought to take over Tribune in the late 20005 and turn it into a union mouthpiece. Both Weir and Murray have been involved in the disciplining of Unite member David Beaumont, who dared to publicise the union’s failure to account for more than £500,000 in mystery spending (Eyes passim) ~ a story Tribune subscribers seem unlikely to read about.
Meanwhile, despite having been off work without explanation — but still paid — for more than two years, Chris McLaughlin has been hired by Sunkara as “editor-at-large”. Nothing’s too good for the non-workers!

 

 

September 28

The following is a statement from Bhaskar Sunkara and tribune posted on Tumblr, with our comments:

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.

(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.)

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.

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

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.

(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.)

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.

(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.)

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

(This was not why the magazine was ‘effectively bankrupt’. See first reply above.)

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.

(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.)

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.

(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.)

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.

(The ‘facts’ are in our letters, available to read below. Clearly Mr Sunkara would not recognise an ‘accurate portrayal’ if it jumped out of his cinnamon latte and punched him in the head.)

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.

(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.)

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.

(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.)

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.

(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.)

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.

(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.)

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.

(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.)

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.

(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.)

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.

(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 thank all of those who have shown us such great support so far – and everyone who committed to the relaunch, especially our skeletal staff who worked extraordinarily hard over the summer to make this project possible.

We are committed to rebuilding Tribune. We invite people to judge that effort, and the approach detailed above, after our first year.

Bhaskar Sunkara, publisher of Tribune

Ronan Burtenshaw, editor of Tribune

(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

And an 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

 

September 27

The following was posted by someone called Eric Blanc, in response to a piece by Mike Elk on a US website, Payday Notes:

Some of you may have seen an article by Mike Elk attacking Jacobin’s practices in reviving Tribune, a great new socialist publication in the UK.

Folks need to understand that this is hit-job attack from the right: In addition to attacking Julia Salazar, Elk has spent the past 6 months giving Randi Weingarden and other top labor officials credit for the recent teachers’ strike wave.

Regarding Tribune, his claims are (at best) extremely misleading. The old Tribune magazine was bankrupt and shut down late last year because of staff mismanagement. When Jacobin took over the IP this summer, it volunteered to pay the former part time staff severance and rehired the full timer. Some of the old part time staff were angry that they weren’t incorporated into the new magazine. That’s it.

As someone who has written extensively for Jacobin, I can confidently say that we don’t need Elk cynically “defending” us to further his personal career and his political project of covering for the labor officialdom.

We responded to Mr Blanc on his FB page, politely if angrily, and in particular requested that he apologise for the ‘right wing attack job’ slur’. His only response was to immediately block us.

 

This is Mike Elk’s article, with our comments (Sep 29):

In his bid to take over the historic British left-wing magazine, The Tribune, Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara is being accused of reneging on wage deal by employees of the paper, who kept the publication alive during struggling times. Tribune was once the home of such greats as George Orwell and has since become the leading publication associated with the influential Momentum faction within the Labor Party.

(He didn’t renege on a ‘wage deal’. Our primary complaint is that he lied to us over a period of 8 months or more with regard to future work and our involvement in the relaunched publication.)

The purchase of the paper seemed like an ideal takeover for Sunkara linking his viral socialist publication in America with the struggling legacy British paper.

This past weekend, Sunkara had a high-profile launch event attended by influential members of the Labor Party, including British member of Parliament Jon Trickett and Len McCluskey, General Secretary of 1.2 million member Unite the Union, the largest union in the UK. The Liverpool featured the French socialist leader Juan-Luc Melenchon as well as Julia Salazar, who despite falsely portraying herself as a working-class immigrant from Colombia, was successful in her bid to be the Democratic nominee for an influential State Senate seat based in Brooklyn.

The event received much fanfare, however underneath the takeover of the storied British publication by the American publisher, media workers activists say that he’s done it by exploiting those, who produce content for socialist publications.

(We did not accuse him of exploitation – we were, after all, never employed by him – only of dishonesty in lying to us and misleading us.)

Workers say that Sunkara promised that if workers took a settlement of only 70% of the back wages that they were owed that he would bring them back as staffers after taking over the publication. However, Sunkara in a statement to Payday confirmed that he would not bring the staffers back.

(He didn’t promise to bring us back as staffers, though he did imply on several occasions that we would have work with the relaunched publication that would amount to more than an occasion feature commission.)

The workers in a series of open letters have accused Sunkara of lying to them and simply taking over the publication to expand Jacobin’s content reach into European markets under the Tribune’s prestigious name.

(Nothing in our letters expresses any opinion about the expansion of ‘Jacobin’s content reach into European markets’.)

“In the capitalist world someone who buys an ailing company and dumps its committed workers is known as an asset-stripper or robber baron, but at least they don’t claim to be socialists,” said former Tribune employee Ian Hernon.  

The dispute between the British magazine’s staff and its new publisher Bhaskar Sunkara, the 29-year-old son of a well-to-do family from the elite New York City suburbs of Westchester County, raises vital questions about how leftists publications treat the workers they employ.

(Sunkara never employed us.)

The brash 29-year-old Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder and publisher of the Brooklyn based socialist magazine Jacobin, has proven to be one of the most controversial figures in the left press: known for increasing the reach of socialist writing while engaging in labor practices far less than socialist.

At a time when many speculated that print was dead, Sunkara built a socialist publication founded in 2011 that proudly boasts of publishing over a thousand articles a year, a print subscription of 30,000 and over one million page views a month online. In addition, the publication boasts of a specialized Jacobin book published by Verso press that has produced a dozen books, a separate academic journal “Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy of Strategy” launched last year, and dozens of Jacobin reading groups throughout the country that help the publication raise money.

However, Sunkara, has been accused of building his empire by underpaying his writers with many making on average $50-$100 a story.

For years, Sunkara and his allies have claimed that the socialist publication lacked the resources to pay its writers.

However, the purchase of the 80-year-old legacy British publication from the British football club Blackpool raised questions about what exactly Sunkara did with the money he saved by underpaying his writers at the Brooklyn-based Jacobin Magazine.

(Tribune was not owned by Blackpool FC but by Owen Oyston, who also owned the football club and whose businesses were based at the club’s stadium.)

In the last year, the Tribune struggled with financial issues and discontinued print editions in January. In the interim period, a skeleton crew of writers and editors struggled to keep the publication afloat as a strictly online publication as they shopped for buyers of the storied publication. As part of his proposed takeover of the publication, Sunkara promised to pay the writers only 70% of the back wages they were owed and give them their jobs when they were returned.

(Tribune has not struggled with financial issues over the past year any more than it has for the past decade. It ceased publication because Owen Oyston withdrew his financial backing after he was ordered by the UK courts to pay £30 million+ to a business partner who the courts decided he had cheated – money he did not have. We did, however, wish to keep the paper going online, but were instructed by Sunkara not to do so. Our financial claim was against Oyston for unpaid salaries, holiday pay etc. Oyston made it a condition of selling the title that Jacobin pay this claim in addition to the price he was asking for the title. Sunkara offered us 70% – which was the most, he told us, that Jacobin could afford, since it was paying more than he had budgeted for to acquire the title. But he did not promise to give us our jobs back, only that we would be involved in the relaunch and would ‘have work’ come September.)

Now, writers say that Sunkara has reneged on his promise to pay their workers their wages owed for the years they spent keeping the publication alive.

(He has not reneged on a promise to pay us our wages – he paid the 70% he had offered, but did not follow on his promise of involvement and future work.)

“All the pious, pseudo-academic waffle in the world doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans. Our actions are what count. How we treat others is what matters” wrote George Orsby in a letter protesting the move.

Reporters told Sunkara that they were outraged that he would renege on their deal and dismiss the workers from the publication. In an email responding to the disgruntled former staff, Sunkara and newly-appointed Tribune editor Ronan Burtenshaw, disputed the contributions of the editor who kept the publication alive during its financial stresses.

(The editor did not keep the publication alive – the three editorial staff did. The editor, who was the only one actually re-employed by Sunkara, had contributed practically nothing to the publication for the previous two years, partly as a result of long-term illness.)

“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,” Burtenshaw told Payday Report in a statement later released online

However, the employees recently disposed of by Sunkara after they agreed to take a cut in back wages owed to them, have less than kind words to say about the jet-set Socialist publisher.

“You said you tried not to become the sort of editor/proprietor you despised. My advice to you is: try harder” wrote former Tribune employee Ian Hernon.

(We would wish it to be made clear that your own comments about Sunkara – ie jet-set socialist publisher etc – are not those of Hernon, Osgerby and Parker. Their opinions are contained in their letters and their reply to Sunkara’s statement and – whether your descriptions are justified or not – we do not wish to be associated with anybody’s words but our own.)

 

The original letters
Dear Bhaskar

So, it is 5pm, Saturday September 22, and the Tribune relaunch will soon be underway. I’m sorry I was not able to accept your invitation to attend, but …

Oh, sorry, that’s right … I wasn’t actually invited to attend. In fact, I wasn’t even informed of the relaunch event; I found out about it because I’m a journalist, and I do that kind of thing.

Let me mention a few things.

Although the recent history of Tribune seems to have been swept under the carpet in the run up to the relaunch, I would remind you that in fact Ian Hernon, George Osgerby and I were producing Tribune until January 2018. We had been doing so in the most straitened circumstances, ridiculously poorly paid, with almost no resources or backroom support, effectively without an editor for more than two years, and using contributors who were willing to offer their work with little or no reward. Whatever shortcomings you or others may consider the product to have had, we kept the publication going and attempted to maintain the Tribune tradition as best we could.

We were aware that Chris McLaughlin had made contact with you and that you had expressed interest in taking on Tribune. We were led to believe that you wanted ‘continuity’ and that you would ‘keep the team together’. When Owen Oyston pulled the plug, we were enthused by the prospect of Jacobin’s involvement and sought to facilitate the transfer of the title both by persuasion and by putting pressure on Oyston through our financial claim via the NUJ. We did so in the belief that we would continue to be involved in a reconfigured Tribune.

On the one occasion you spoke to me during this period you said you liked my contributions to Tribune and wanted me to write for the relaunched mag. You suggested Ian, George and I would be involved in the planning for it. That there would be a meeting or meetings in the run-up to the relaunch in which you wanted us to participate. However, you also told us about the fact that in order to buy the magazine, Oyston wanted you to pay the amounts we were claiming from him, and you suggested that this would be possible if we took 70 per cent of what we were owed. We accepted this compromise in the belief that we would continue to be involved in Tribune and believing the promise that there would be work for us on the relaunched publication.

After Ian, George and I received the payment from you of our 70 per cent of what was owed by Oyston we heard practically nothing more from you, nothing from Ronan Burtenshaw and nothing coherent from Chris McLaughlin, who you had retained in some capacity. Almost everything we have learned about the future of Tribune has come third hand or through public sources. No meetings materialised. We were not asked to participate in any planning, nor invited to contribute. We were not informed of Ronan Burtenshaw’s appointment as editor or what the editorial plans for Tribune were. It is almost as though, once we had been ‘paid off’, you had decided that we could comfortably be cast aside completely. Perhaps you suspected that if we had not received this false promise of involvement we would have been reluctant to accept that 70 per cent. To be honest, I suspect such suspicion would have been correct.

I did receive an email from you eventually, after my prompting, in which you said, ‘I appreciate your competence and your work keeping Tribune afloat and I do apologize for my lapses in the communication. But it is my hope to get you all involved with the project.’ No invitation to ‘get involved’ has ever been received, apart from a later message from Ronan, again after some prompting, in which we were vaguely invited to make ‘pitches’ for future issues. Not exactly what we had been led to believe, at the beginning of this process, would be our role.

I also noted in your email that the new Tribune would have an advisory board to offer ‘political and intellectual guidance’ – also clearly not something to which you believe we could contribute.

So, I was effectively dumped once you had managed to acquire the magazine, and have, unfortunately, been unemployed since. I am not naïve. I understand that when a new proprietor takes over a publication, even a left-wing one, he/she may want a new direction and fresh blood. If you had said that from the beginning and not misled us, you might have retained my support. What I object to, and what makes me very angry, is the dishonesty of the process in which you indulged and the disrespect you have shown myself and my colleagues

Now, though, at least we have something solid to look at, and the contents list contains barely a single previous contributor to Tribune that I recognise. (And though I know you were sent the contributors’ details, I have not yet come across a single one who has been contacted by you.) It is ironic, in fact, that, apart from Mr McCluskey (and is he aware of how we have been treated?), the only familiar name on that contents list is the one who, despite being the nominal editor, contributed practically nothing of value to Tribune during the three and a half years I was working on it.

I wonder if, amidst no doubt stirring words this afternoon from usual suspects like Owen Jones, there will be any recognition of the efforts Ian, George and I made to keep Tribune going and facilitate Jacobin’s acquisition of it. Somehow I doubt it. So often on the left, principles of comradeship, solidarity, honesty and so on make fine rhetoric but are shamelessly abandoned when they become inconvenient. I am not surprised by the way you have treated Ian, George and I – I have had worse experiences, not least at Red Pepper – but it’s just as well that my capacity for disappointment in so-called ‘democratic socialists’ has not yet reached its limit.

Good luck.

Mike Parker

Dear Bhaskar

Good luck with the relaunch at the Momentum love-in.

I would have been there but wasn’t invited, or even informed about it. I’m not sure whether that was a calculated insult or utter disdain for those who kept it going so that you would have something to buy.

I had sincerely hoped that the claims made some months ago by ‘christribune’ that you never intended to honour your commitments – made both verbally and in emails – to the Tribune team were wrong. It now seems that, rare for him, he was right.

In the capitalist world someone who buys an ailing company and dumps its committed workers is known as an asset-stripper or robber baron, but at least they don’t claim to be socialists.

When we spoke over the telephone I referred to an on-line interview with you in which you said you tried not to become the sort of editor/proprietor you despised. My advice to you is: try harder.

Yours,

Ian Hernon

Dear Bhaskar,

I suppose I should congratulate you and your whole team (a number of whom have never before been involved with Tribune), and wish you well, all the best and good luck with the launch of ‘first’ edition of ‘Tribune’.

I am saddened not to be participating, along with Ian, Mike and others who helped to keep Tribune going over many years (before the involvement of Owen Oyston in my case) for little or no payment. For this long association to end in the way it has is somewhat disappointing.

Maybe I misunderstood when you informed me in a telephone conversation several months ago that you would contact me in August with a view meeting up in that same month, and stated that you looked ‘forward to collaborating with’ me. I understand that you had similar exchanges with Ian and Mike.

I have been reflecting on what it actually might mean to be a ‘democratic socialist’. You may be uninterested, but perhaps you will indulge me. All the pious, pseudo-academic waffle in the world doesn’t really amount to a hill of beans. Our actions are what count. How we treat others is what matters.

Yours,

George Osgerby

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

 

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