Is Exaro News on its last legs? The online news company faces a number of difficulties.
The fundamental difficulty may be financial.
Exaro has been largely funded by the entrepreneur and hedge-fund manager Jerome Booth. In 2013 Dr Booth was named the 425th richest person in Britain in the Sunday Times rich list (at £189M his wealth was slightly greater than Rolling Stone Keith Richards). Sadly (according to the rich list), he has been losing money recently – £73M last year – reducing his wealth to a mere £112M, and relegating him to a disappointing 847th= in the 2015 list (in the same period, for what it is worth, Richards has increased his wealth to £210M). As we shall see, Dr Booth’s involvement with Exaro does not seem to have eased his cash flow problems.
It all started in 2011 when he was approached by the journalist Mark Watts, and PR man Tim Pendry. Their objective was to set up a news gathering organisation that would, as Exaro’s mission statement now puts it, “hold power to account.”
Mr Watts is a seasoned journalist. There is a potted biography on the Exaro website:
“He has a strong track-record of breaking agenda-setting, investigative stories while working as a reporter on several national newspapers, including The Sunday Times, The Independent on Sunday, The Sunday Telegraph, and Sunday Express. He also worked on World in Action and an array of other television current-affairs programmes.”
It is an impressive list, and it doesn’t even mention his short spell presenting a programme for the Iranian backed station Press TV, which, coincidentally, was produced by his Exaro colleague Fiona O’Clearigh.
Mr Pendry is the “TP” in the PR firm TPPR. According to its website:
“TPPR specialises in online reputation management and strategic advisory services. Our skills and experience are in issues campaigning and defence against politically or commercially motivated defamation and innuendo. We operate as an independent flank of support alongside legal counsel.”
On the same website Mr Pendry describes himself as a:
“political and campaigns activist who oversees international issues management and research and intelligence operations.”
One of TPPR’s more interesting clients was Asma Al-Assad, wife of the blood-soaked dictator Bashir, for whom the company:
“organised a media visit to the Presidential Palace and [did] some advisory work of a fairly standard type.”
Those of us not used to representing dictators’ spouses can only speculate what a “fairly standard type of advisory work” would have involved for Mrs Assad. It was some time ago and Mr Pendry draws a veil of “client confidentiality” over exactly what he did. I suppose he means the normal sort of thing that one would do for any dictator’s wife: putting as much distance as possible between her and the death squads, secret police and torture chambers that her husband used to stay in power.
Despite having the benefit of Mr Pendry’s expertise, Mrs Assad has had her fair share of “politically motivated defamation and innuendo” to deal with, but her reputation has also suffered from her own PR blunders, although these were no doubt incurred after she stopped taking Mr Pendry’s advice.
Her purchases of a chocolate fondue set, a pair of £3,795 16cm high-heeled Christine Louboutin shoes, and various pieces of gem-encrusted jewellery while her country descended into civil war in 2011, for example, would surely have been something that, had he been asked, Mr Pendry would have advised her against; at the very least he would have told her to be more discreet..
Anyway, back to Exaro and its mission of holding power to account in Britain, if not in Syria.
At the time of its 2011 launch, Exaro’s Editor in Chief, Mark Watts (he is also a director, as are both Pendry and Booth), seemed to anticipate it being a rather different organisation from the one it has become.
“Good journalism is about publishing insightful, useful and reliable information. It can have commercial value in addition to social value in terms of improving public awareness and debate. It does not come cheap; good journalism requires serious resources.”
Speaking in June 2012 the aim appeared to be to concentrate on financial news:
‘We see the audience as two categories. General broadsheet readers who might tend to be more interested in real news as opposed to the celebrity tittle-tattle. And then separately, the business world and the City professional.
‘It’s very much aimed at them because there’s a big question over whether the general consumer is willing to pay for the product of news or information. That’s quite tough in an environment where there’s so much free content available.
‘When it comes to the business world and city professional, this is a world which is quite used to paying and expects to pay for decent information.
‘The overarching ethos of the site is to be holding power to account and government in the very broadest sense of that word. And to be doing so in a way that we think is of particular interest to the business world.”
Income for the site was to be by subscription (the site was, for a time, behind a pay wall) and Mr Watts anticipated that it would be “about 3 years for the subscription level to break even.” Asked how many subscriptions would be needed for Exaro to be viable, Mr Watts said:
‘Not an enormous number because one of the key things is getting corporate subs rather than individuals.”
A year later in 2013 Mr Watts announced a slight change of course. Exaro was going to collate and edit publicly available financial information, from sources such as the London, Belfast and Edinburgh Gazettes, “repurpose” it, and sell the information to a few rich companies. One could almost call its then target market “the rich and powerful”:
“The editorial aspect is important. The data interrogation techniques are very specific and journalists are also able to present things in a meaningful way. There is a sense of having to distil it, and make sense of the data.”
According to TheMediaBriefing.com, writing in June 2013, Exaro’s idea was to charge subscription fees of around £6,000 to “a small but significant user base potentially generating hundreds of thousands of pounds of revenue.”
The “repurposed data” was to consist to a large extent of reports of company bankruptcies filed in the Gazettes, venerable and worthy publications with strong claims, along with the Keynsham Weekly News, to be amongst the world’s dullest newspapers. They are official Government publications and though boring they serve the necessary purpose of publicising official and legal notices. It’s hardly Bernstein and Woodward stuff, but no doubt there are interesting stories to be dug out of its unforgiving columns of bankruptcies, receiverships and probate announcements. Exaro’s plan, it seems, was to repackage it and sell it to a more impatient readership.
Two months after announcing its plan to charge rich people for these sexed up bankruptcy reports, it dismantled its pay wall for ordinary readers altogether.
From August 2013 all of its ordinary content became free to view. Exaro announced that the few subscribers who had coughed up for its ordinary news service were to be refunded. Instead, Exaro was going to:
“focus on add-on data services as its main generator of revenue.”
This seems to have been a reference to its plan to sell “repurposed” data from the official Gazettes.
The price was a fairly breathtaking £5,400 per annum (including VAT), although there was (and I think there remains) a strangely unenticing offer that lets you pay a considerably higher monthly rate for a three month trial subscription. For this money Exaro promised to supply an:
“in-depth and detailed overview of UK insolvencies, including the industry sector for the company and the details for the insolvency practitioners, where available.”
The subscribers who took this up were promised a daily email with a spreadsheet attachment listing companies that had gone bust, together with various other details. Quite what use they were expected to make of such data escapes me, but no doubt there was one. I suppose if you are the finance director of a successful corporation with money to spare, reading about the collapse of your rivals may be quite enjoyable. Even so, to my mind it takes considerable imagination to make the insolvency section of the London Gazette even more more boring than it already is, but putting its contents onto a daily series of spreadsheets probably succeeds.
The “bespoke” insolvency index offer is still theoretically available according to the Exaro website, though only if you search for it. It is no longer even mentioned on the home page. This suggests that it isn’t a very popular service. Even influential corporate account holders, it seems, can think of better ways to spend £5,400.
As a business model it doesn’t seem to have worked very well. Far from showing any signs of breaking even by 2014, as the original business plan had envisaged, the latest available accounts (up to February 2014) show that Exaro had net liabilities – debt – of £2,403,594, an increase of about £800,000 from the already fairly hefty £1,600,000 it owed in 2013.
Every penny of that was owed to the generous Dr Booth, who (as at February 2014) had lent the company £2,295,292, together with interest of £113,410. The loan is legally repayable on March 16th 2016. Dr Booth is not a philanthropist, or at least not where Exaro is concerned. As Watts explained:
“he is someone who has invested in the business and is hoping at the end of the day to get a return on it.”
Presumably it was because selling financial data to the rich wasn’t working very well, that Exaro completely changed direction.
Out went the financial news, in came the VIP paedophiles and murderers. It was a change of tone and content almost as dramatic as if the London Gazette had replaced its probate announcements with extreme pornography.
To be fair, Exaro has not quite abandoned its financial stories, although I would be surprised if anyone much reads them. Two unremarkable stories about trends in the “Exaro Insolvency Index” appeared in April and July of this year, and on September 18th it published a piece about Westland Helicopters being accused of bribery in relation to its business in Italy and India.
But that’s it.
Otherwise, in recent months the company has relied almost exclusively on accounts of VIP paedophilia and murder.
This is not the place to go over all the various sensational stories that the site has run in the last 18 months. I don’t pretend to be anything other than very sceptical about most of them, but nobody can deny that the allegations are so serious that they have to be seriously investigated.
It suffices to say that most of them rely heavily on 3 sources:
No doubt all this stuff attracted readers, but readers do not, in themselves, produce money. As Exaro says, “good journalism requires serious resources.”
Many of the VIP paedophile stories were published jointly with the Daily Mirror or Sunday People. Exaro has also co-operated with the Russian propaganda station RT.com (Mr Watts has been interviewed twice by its star presenter George Galloway), and with the Australian documentary programme 60 Minutes. We don’t know the financial arrangements that were made in any of these cases, but at least as far as 60 Minutes is concerned, it seems that Exaro received money.
Although both Esther Baker and “Darren” co-operated with 60 Minutes, they were not paid for their contributions, and nor, according to Darren, were they even told that Exaro was being paid by the Australians.
Since this emerged Darren has denounced Exaro.
On 26th September he tweeted:
“apparently Exaro got paid for the Australian today programme and didn’t tell me or other survivors”
His criticism is not that he wanted money for his story, indeed he has been very clear that he has never received or requested any money for it; it is that Exaro made money out of him without telling him.
It does not stop there.
As a result of his exposure by Exaro, he says, he has been “ridiculed nationwide.” One of his allegations is that Exaro suggested that he join Twitter. They “said it would be good for me and get more exposure for my case.” He took up the suggestion (if that is what it was) last May, tweeting under a pseudonym.
Given his legal right to anonymity, and the fact that he wishes to remain anonymous, it would have been odd for Exaro to advise him to take steps that would be likely to lead to him being more easily identified. “Darren” is not his real name but it is in the nature of things that personal details often leak out when people use social media. Locations can be tweeted, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally, and sometimes even automatically. Even if a person shelters behind a pseudonym and is cautious not to reveal any personal details, those with whom he interacts may be less careful. Anyone interested in discovering the identity of an anonymous tweeter is likely to scour his and his followers’ tweets for clues as to his real identity.
Whatever the reason, in Darren’s case he was identified and, according to him, he has been visited at home by journalists, in the evening, when his children were in bed. The Telegraph, which found him, then published a story under the headline
“Questions mount over ‘troubled’ key witness in VIP abuse murder inquiry.”
Although the Telegraph reported his assertion that his allegations were true, the story also included various unflattering details about Darren’s past which had not, until then, been in the public domain. No wonder he was upset.
It would be difficult to blame the Telegraph, for which I have written, for exposing Darren to public scrutiny. The Telegraph did not reveal his name and, thanks to Exaro, Darren’s character and past history had become a legitimate matter of public interest. Without Exaro’s sensational stories the Telegraph would never have troubled to track down and interview him, or to reveal his past.
And there have been other consequences.
Darren has now withdrawn his co-operation from the Suffolk police.
According to Exaro, he did so after they reported concerns about his baby son to Social Services. Exaro referred to a detective from Suffolk Constabulary who:
“… told him that they made the referral because survivors of child sexual abuse are more likely to be paedophiles themselves.
“A police source corroborated Darren’s claim, saying that the officer told him ‘statistics show that a large number of survivors of abuse do go on to be abusers.’”
Exaro quoted Darren as saying that the police referral was “a betrayal of trust,” and implied (without actually saying) that he had withdrawn his co-operation from the police inquiry as a result of this referral.
(It should be made clear, by the way, that despite the police referral, Suffolk Social Services have said that there were no grounds even to investigate Darren over the welfare of his son. A “social worker known to Exaro” also found that there “absolutely no grounds for concern.”)
Graham Wilmer, co-founder of the sexual abuse survivors’ organisation The Lantern Project, has, according to Exaro, been “providing support” to Darren. He described the policeman’s words as “inexcusable … [and] dangerous because it will deter victims from coming forward.”
The Telegraph reported one important point that was not included in the Exaro report:
“Police sources have suggested the referral to social services was made over growing concerns that Darren’s postings on the social networking site Twitter were increasingly alarming.”
In other words, according to the Telegraph, the referral to social services was linked to Darren’s twitter account, an account he had set up because Exaro asked him to do so.
This is quite a serious matter. Darren is, on the face of things, a fairly vulnerable individual. He is – and there seems very little doubt about this – the survivor of some sort of childhood sexual abuse. By his own account on top of that, he has been the witness to a peculiarly grisly murder. Anyone dealing with him ought to be aware of the possibility that he is a young man with some degree of mental fragility.
It might be thought that to expose such a person to public scrutiny without an absolutely over-riding public interest was unwise. To suggest that he take to social media to “get more exposure” for his case, if that is indeed what happened, could be considered distinctly irresponsible.
Exaro might suggest that publicising his case through social media will help expose and catch the criminals responsible for his abuse and the murder he witnessed.
In fact the contrary is true. Quite apart from the damage that may have been done to Darren himself, the more he discusses his case with others on social media, the less compelling his testimony is likely to be should it ever come before a jury.
And the result of giving Darren’s case “more exposure” has been that Darren has been ridiculed, his account has been ridiculed, he has had to deal with the threat of Social Services removing his child, and he has withdrawn co-operation with the police.
Whether his account is true or false, from Darren’s point of view this seems a pretty disastrous outcome. It also seems disastrous from the point of view of anyone hoping to see his allegations properly and fully investigated.
Similar questions also need to be asked about Exaro’s treatment of “Nick.” He, it will be recalled, is the man who has alleged that he was raped by Harvey Proctor amongst others, and that he witnessed other boys being murdered. He too has had his cover all but blown, this time by the Daily Mail. Although Operation Midland apparently continues, there is speculation that it will soon be quietly, or perhaps not so quietly, wound up. No longer do the police describe Nick’s account as “credible and true.” Now, we are told, it is merely “credible.”
The consequences of all this could not be starker for Exaro.
First it tried being boring. Although it achieved that objective, it lost money.
Then it tried being sensational. It may have made some money (though I very much doubt whether it has made enough to satisfy the now considerably poorer Dr Booth), but it has done so by staking its reputation on the accounts of three potentially vulnerable witnesses.
I have been critical of Exaro in the past. Last month I wrote:
“Either Exaro actually has stumbled across the story of the century, or it has been muckraking on a grand scale, exploiting a possibly vulnerable “witness” and exposing innocent people and their families to a grotesque and seemingly endless trial by internet.”
Should Operation Midland now be concluded without any charges being laid then it is difficult to see how Exaro could survive.
Restoring its reputation after such a debacle would be too much for the PR skills even of a former adviser to Mrs Assad.