BOOK REVIEW / Nice tie, how about the newspaper?: Godfrey Hodgson on a lively but limited survey of the world's newspaper tycoons: 'Paper Tigers' - Nicholas Coleridge: Heinemann, 17.99 pounds
Saturday 10 July 1993
The map at the beginning of Nicholas Coleridge's sprightly account of his encounters with press lords and ladies betrays a similar view of the world. It is a very Eighties view. It doesn't just assume that only English-language newspapers matter, plus a few vernacular newspapers in cities with Englishlanguage papers like Hong Kong. It is the view of the Eighties financial journalists who presented the whole vast universe of economic activity as so many personalised jousts between brilliant individuals like Ivan Boesky and Robert Maxwell.
In this strange frontispiece, the names of a couple of dozen newspaper proprietors, almost all of them based in the United States, Britain, Australia or Hong Kong, except for three Indians, one Thai and the Aga Khan, are inscribed in little boxes. The not inconsiderable fraction of the world that does not read English is represented by Robert Hersant of Le Figaro and Roberto Marinho of O Globo in Sao Paulo.
That Brazilian worthy, however, does not rate a chapter of his own, while Hersant, owner of Le Figaro, receives just 10 not very enlightening pages, against the 47 of encomium for Conrad Black and the 42 pages in praise of Rupert Murdoch. Coleridge, by the way, seems quite unaware that under a new editor Figaro has opened up to politically moderate readers in exactly the same way as the Telegraph has under Max Hastings. In the newspapers of Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan, some of them of high quality and even owned by men rated fairly high on the glitz and eccentricity scales, he takes no interest at all. Indeed, his lack of interest in Japan, whose hi-tech, huge circulation newspapers may well be on the point of expanding worldwide, shows up the narrow bounds of his intellectual curiosity.
The boxes are linked by looping arrows on the great circles, suggesting that the world is encircled by these newspaper publishers. Just to reinforce the message, this faintly paranoid mappa mundi is accompanied by a panel emblazoned with the mastheads of what are called 'the world's 10 most powerful privately controlled newspapers', an odd list which includes the Sun, and, odder, the South China Morning Post. It is revealing that Coleridge simply ignores the corporate structure of News International or the Washington Post company. In his world, the Post is Katharine Graham, and the Murdoch papers are Rupert Murdoch. Neither Mrs Graham nor Mr Murdoch, of course, make that mistake.
The whole exercise is ludicrously ethnocentric and culture-bound, but I doubt Coleridge loses sleep over that. But what are his criteria? What interests him? If 'power' includes the ability to move the world's stock markets, why no Financial Times? Why no Japanese newspapers? Why no German ones? Do the newspapers of Moscow, Beijing, Cairo have less 'power' than the Cox newspapers in Atlanta and Ohio?
His criteria, it seems, are those of that indisputably successful non-Anglo- Saxon venture, Hello]: he actually reproaches the Sulzbergers, owners of the New York Times, for not being 'glitzy' enough, which is a bit like criticising an archbishop for not walking with a wiggle. To the extent that Coleridge has any interest in the politics of newspaper ownership, it is limited to a vague resentment, fully shared by most of his subjects, that anyone might criticise the present benevolent order of things. The prospect of an Anglo-Saxon media monopoly, clearly, he thinks would be a Jolly Good Thing.
The book is as full of mistakes as a spotted dick pudding. Some of these may be literals: Monterry Park, California, or 'idealogical'. Some seem to be due to illiterate transcription of tape recordings: my favourite of those is 'fingerbitskerfould' for fingerspitzgefuhl: if you can't spell it, why not use 'flair' instead? If you don't know what it means, why use it at all?
Others reveal a limited knowledge of the world. Fancy choosing to write about the Atlanta Constitution and then not finding space for a word about its great editor Ralph McGill and his part in desegregating the South. Fancy thinking the Cox newspapers are the biggest company in Georgia when Coca Cola's world headquarters is just down the road. Fancy thinking it was 'anglophile' of an American to talk about cents as 'pennies': Americans have been doing that since the Revolution.
Coleridge, who used to be the editor of Harpers & Queen, can perhaps be forgiven for his consumerist tic of telling you what brand of expensive watch or tie his subjects are wearing. What is more irritating is his almost total indifference to the contents of newspapers, and to the people who edit and write them. Indeed, he seems to share the view of all but a handful of his subjects, that the only interesting thing about newspapers is how much money they make.
Still, if you accept that this is not a very serious book, hardly indeed a book, as opposed to a non-book, it has to be said that it is a spanking read, rather like reading 25 issues of a glossy magazine, one after the other. Coleridge, who seems to make a specialty of knowing the children of newspaper owners, got tremendous access. Most of his profiles are sharply written, if hardly sharply critical, and every 100 pages or so he comes up with a nice epigram. This would be a good book to take along on a long plane journey in case you don't like the movie.
His admirations are revealing. He admires Rupert Murdoch, and he reports, interestingly, that most of the other newspaper owners he interviewed put Murdoch at the top of the chart for sheer professionalism and ability. More surprisingly he admires Conrad Black, whom he regards as 'quixotic'. But it has to be said that he does succeed in making Mr Black sound much more interesting than the arrogant reactionary intellectual he is usually portrayed as, without quite making him sound actually human.
Admiration is one thing, affection another. Coleridge's affection seems to be reserved for Vere, Lord Rothermere, a proprietor whose main achievement has been to appoint one brilliant editor and leave him to get on with producing one of the world's most brilliant mass market papers.
It is not a very Eighties thing to say, but it is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye than for a newspaper proprietor to talk about anything but money. (Conrad Black is a distinguished exception.) As for me, I prefer the company of journalists. A book about journalists might have been more interesting. And of course, in most airport bookshops they also sell lots of newspapers, which can be quite fun to read.
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