Heat Street's Louise Mensch tells us how she persuaded News Corp to back a news site with 'no safe spaces'
With Donald Trump ripping a chasm through US politics and Brexit leaving Britain's liberal elite gasping, it's not been a bad year to launch a spikey right-wing website, which snorts at political correctness.
Not that this was always the intention for Heat Street, the self-styled "libertarian Huffington Post" being grown in Rupert Murdoch's backyard. Typical headlines include 'Gang of Feminist ‘Beardos’ Try To Stop a Guy From Filming Portland 'Slut Walk'' and 'Black Tenant Slams Neighbor’s Noise Complaint As Racist ‘White Tears'.'
Louise Mensch, the former Conservative MP turned journalist, tells us that getting the website off the ground in such a politically tumultuous environment was more luck than design.
She came up with the idea for a caustic blog under the News Corp empire "three or four years ago" after claiming the company's digital output "was not that great." But Heat Street was in "corporate development hell" for a long time after Mensch originally pitched the idea to Will Lewis, the chief executive of New Corp's Dow Jones.
She recalls: "In the end, I said: 'Guys, if we’re not going to do this, let me do something else for you because at the moment I'm spinning my wheels.'"
News Corp CEO Robert Thompson eventually signed off the project in late 2015, but not without toying with Mensch. "He punked me," she laughs. "I was bracing myself for rejection. He sighed heavily and said it was 'difficult market conditions' and then said, 'so that’s why we’ve decided to back you.' Then I leapt up and went 'oh my god' and ran round the room."
Mensch believes Thompson's prank has a whiff of News Corp's "anti-establishment, or at least anti-stuffiness" roots. This, she adds, is the spirit Heat Street is attempting to capture.
"That punky libertarian thing is pretty much in the original spirit and wheelhouse of where this company is. It’s misunderstood, I believe, as a straight down the line fuddy-duddy Conservative company. But I think that’s completely wrong. Where we are here is closer to that punky spirit," she says.
Mensch turns to another musical reference to describe Heat Street's editorial mantra: Metallica song "Don’t Tread On Me." These words are synonymous with the Gadsden flag, a symbol of the American Revolution, which has been adopted by right-wing libertarians and the Tea Party movement.
The flag is not free from controversy. In August, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decided to investigate whether it could be considered a racist symbol in the workplace after a complainant argued that it is a "historical indicator of white resentment against blacks."
Mensch prefers to focus on the more literal meaning of "don't tread on me," explaining: "People are so fed up of being lectured and hectored, as they see it. That’s what drives us."
It's an attitude that has delivered recent attention-grabbing articles including 'Are Obama’s Wind Turbines to Blame for Hurricanes?' and 'The Sheer Greed of Diane Abbott.' It was also forced to apologise last month after publishing a piece claiming that the Pepe the Frog meme is not anti-semitic.
Heat Street's British voice.
Mensch downed tools on her Sun on Sunday column in January to focus on getting Heat Street off the ground. Heat Street launched in April and is now being read by nearly 6 million unique users a month around the world. In total, around 16 people work on the website, two of whom are based out of News UK's office in London.
Freelance journalist Miles Goslett was hired as UK editor in January. Goslett is best known for uncovering the crippling mismanagement of high-profile UK childrens' charity Kids Company, which closed in August 2015. He is also widely credited for the explosive revelation that BBC news programme "Newsnight" pulled a story about Jimmy Savile's rein of abuse soon after his death.
It was the Kids Company story that brought Goslett into the fold after Mensch praised him in her Sun on Sunday column for exposing the scandal. He explains: "I sent her an email saying how kind and generous [it was] that she noted my role in that story. She wrote back saying: 'How do you feel about not being a freelance journalist?'"
Mensch says Goslett is a good fit with the Heat Street brand. His track record shows he has a nose for agenda-setting, controversial stories. There is also a streak of mischievousness in his reporting, which can infuriate those he writes about. Senior figures at the BBC are privately dismissive of Goslett, believing him to have an agenda against the broadcaster.
This spilled over at the height of the Savile scandal when former BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten accused Goslett of "spin" in a tense exchange during a press conference in 2012.
Goslett believes the BBC is "mired in secrecy." He explains: "The BBC is among the most secretive public organisations. It receives more public money every year than the Foreign Office and is not happy to tell anybody who pays the licence fee how that money is spent."
But it's not all about the BBC for Goslett. Yes, he's delivered scoops for Heat Street on former "Top Gear" presenter Chris Evans being quizzed by police over alleged lewd behaviour on "The Big Breakfast" in the 1990s. But he also revealed Diane Abbott spent nearly £30,000 of her charity's money on a parliamentary awards bash.
Goslett has also renewed hostilities with Alan Yentob, the former Kids Company chair and ex-BBC creative director. In a story about Yentob's new production company, I Am Curious ... Productions, Goslett posted the audio from the curt conversation they had (Yentob ends the call by saying: "No, you can't have any conversation, it's none of your business. Goodbye."). It says a lot about the spikey journalism that Heat Street is trying to foster.
"You are telling the reader as much as you know about the story," Goslett explains when asked about the audio clip. He adds that it is no different to a TV camera crew doorstepping a politician.
"We're putting political correctness under the spotlight and trying to have a bit of fun with it. The strapline is: 'No Safe Spaces.' We make mischief and have some fun with it. We try to do that, and sometimes we cover things in a more serious way," he says.
Goslett and his reporter Kieran Corcoran are helping the UK website generate around 20% of Heat Street's traffic. He collaborates closely with the team in New York and they hold daily editorial meetings. He says Mensch is "very hands-on," adding: "She is relentlessly positive, incredibly busy and hardworking. She’s got a lot to say."
Indeed, Mensch has written Heat Street's best performing story to date. Mensch used her French to wade through 14 hours of testimony on the Paris terror attacks last year to produce a story headlined 'France 'Suppressed Reports of Gruesome Torture' at Bataclan Massacre.'
She emphasises it is a "lean operation" and Goslett says that getting Heat Street to "double digit [millions]" unique users will prove to be a tipping point. Neither he or Mensch would talk about revenue, but they said that the vast majority of the website's income is currently from programmatic advertising.
Once above the 10 million traffic threshold, Heat Street will begin to strike more meaningful advertising deals, which in turn should unlock investment in more resources. "We’re already owned by the end user. We have to deliver a profitable product and we’re not doing it on promises and pie graphs for some venture capitalist. We have to show an actual business case," Mensch adds.
She does think the traffic Heat Street has generated from a standing start shows that it has hit a nerve. Mensch compares the website's trajectory to Donald Trump: "The only reason he’s got somewhere this time is because the rise of political correctness has pissed everyone off so much that something was going to snap — and it has snapped."
Not that she is a supporter of Trump. Mensch is personally backing Hilary Clinton, but only because she loathes the Republican candidate. Despite her strong views — and the fact that Heat Street backed Brexit — she says it is rare that the website will take a political position.
If you ever support Donald Trump for any excuse, you cease to be a conservative on that day. #NeverTrump— Louise Mensch (@LouiseMensch) May 28, 2016
"We certainly wouldn’t take, as a newspaper might, an editorial view on which candidate would be backed," agrees Goslett. "We encourage wide-open debate."
Mensch says the plan is to get into more Buzzfeed-style lifestyle content as the website evolves. Collaborating with other Murdoch brands is also a priority, with Mensch highlighting Fox News (she has already appeared on the network to plug Heat Street). Mensch says "people should watch their backs" when the website hits its goals.
Murdoch and his senior team are monitoring Heat Street's progress carefully. "Mr. Murdoch took a very close interest from the beginning of project. After launch he came down to see the entire team," Mensch says.
Goslett, who has also sat down to discuss the website's progress with News UK chief executive Rebekah Brooks, adds: "They feel quite positive about it. It’s got the benefit of being brand new, and people are always excited by new things."