BOOK REVIEW / When shall we three meet again?: Charles Burgess on Stephen Glover's sad story about the early life of the Independent and the Independent on Sunday: Paper Dreams - Stephen Glover: Jonathan Cape, pounds 17.99

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
JUST BEFORE the Spanish-American War of 1898, William Randolph Hearst, the editor and proprietor of the New York Journal, received a cable from his man in Havana, the illustrator Frederick Remington. It read: 'Everything is quiet here. There will be no war. I wish to return.' The Chief, as he was known, replied: 'Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war.'

The first Viscount Rothermere, Harold Harmsworth, who inherited the Daily Mail on the death of his brother Lord Northcliffe, made his paper spend much of 1927 campaigning on behalf of the people of Hungary. He was eventually asked if he would like to be king, but turned it down. The Harmsworths never did replace the Hapsburgs, but it was a close run thing.

It is anecdotes like these that provide the raw meat on which the readers of newspaperology feast. Big stage, big bucks, big stories. More recently, Harold Evans's account of life with Rupert Murdoch had many of the classic hallmarks. It chronicled the relationship between arguably the best editor in Britain at the time, and the most famous media tycoon of the late 20th century. It ended with Evans leaving, his revenge coming with the publication of Good Times, Bad Times. It was compulsive reading.

Last week another book of vengeful memoirs was published, but there the similarity with either Harold Evans or the great books on this business ends. Not even the author would claim to be in Evans's class, either as an editor or storyteller.

Stephen Glover was one of the three founders of the Independent, starting off as its foreign editor, then becoming the founding editor of the Independent on Sunday. He resigned two years ago when it was clear that the Sunday paper was going to need drastic action to stem huge losses, requiring the merging of the two news operations, and clear, too, that the paper needed a change of direction. It is, essentially, the story of how he fell out with his two co-founders, Andreas Whittam Smith and Matthew Symonds, and it is a sad one.

It goes without saying that the book is one-sided. Glover presents the story of the paper as a feud, without at any point understanding that he was edged out not by personal bitterness, but because his newspaper was drifting badly.

There are a mysterious number of rudimentary mistakes which one hopes would not, in the author's newspaper days, have slipped past the copy editors. I feature in one anecdote: as sports editor I go to Monte Carlo with Matthew Symonds to watch a Grand Prix. It was not Monte Carlo, it was San Marino - though it was equally enjoyable. The name of the deputy sports editor is also wrong. These are trifles, but they do hint at the author's lack of interest in the life of the paper, as opposed to the life of the boardroom.

More upsetting is the enthusiasm with which he sets about old friends. The book is strewn with direct quotations from conversations which took place up to seven years ago; these may or (more to the point) may not be correct. Private quips, uttered in the strain of the moment, are used, one of their intentions being to embarrass those involved. But alert readers will be wise to the sense in which stories designed to embarrass people often wind up embarrassing the teller. When Stephen Glover mentions his co-founders' company cars, with an apologetic whinge about his own 'largeish Mercedes', it is not quite clear whom we are supposed to feel sorry for.

To someone whose life has been bound up in the Independent since its birth, it was a pleasure to relive those emotional early days. Glover successfully recreates the highs and lows, and he captures well the romantic streak about the whole operation. It is unnerving to be reminded how little the founders then knew about starting and running newspapers. (Glover recalls merchant bankers who used words like 'venture capital' - which he pretends to be bemused by, even though this is exactly what he was asking for.) But, generally, they chose their staff well - and I would say that, wouldn't I?

In Fleet Street it is no myth that the Independent reporter is the one in the hair shirt, charging minimal expenses. So it may come as a surprise to some of the writers who have passed through City Road how much dining at the Savoy and elsewhere went on at the top. It is odd, in these episodes, how easy Glover finds it to satirise his ex-colleagues for events in which he himself (he half-wishes us to think) played a leading role. He does not attempt to conceal how proud he is of having once edited Isis at Oxford; but otherwise he wants us to believe, like George Bush during Iran-Contra, that he was right at the heart of things, but that nothing was up to him.

At the end, Glover paints a picture of a Sunday staff united behind him, fighting off the marauding Whittam Smith, who was after all the editor-in-chief and still is, and Symonds. This is not correct. Several of the Sunday men he thought were active in trying to find a new owner for the Sunday title (a ridiculous concept, if they had thought about it for a minute) were already wondering who would succeed him. He was outmanoeuvred, sure, but he had to go: it is hard to find anyone who does not feel that the paper, under its new editor, Ian Jack, is vastly improved.

The truth about Glover is that if he had not been a founder of this newspaper, which can never be taken away from him, he would have been unlikely to have been made a foreign editor, let alone editor of a national newspaper. It was his good luck that his friendship with Symonds, both at Oxford and at the Telegraph, where they and Whittam Smith worked before setting off on the great adventure, led to his being in the triumvirate.

A certain amount of good fortune, to be sure, led to the launch of the Independent into the last few years of the Thatcher boom. The Sunday paper, on the other hand, was launched slap bang into the teeth of the recession. Now, Glover's book has been equally lucky, hitting the review pages of self-interested rivals at a time when the Independent has just failed to buy the Observer and more money is being sought to finance a fightback against our wealthier competitors.

The timing is good, but Glover has only small fish to fry. There are recent books about the British press that would appeal to the outsider, notably Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie's Disaster, the hilarious account of the rise and fall of the ill-conceived and short-lived News on Sunday, and Duff Hart Davis's brilliant story of The Daily Telegraph, The House the Berrys Built. But Paper Dreams, alas, was never intended to appeal to a general audience.