Media: Greenslade, Glover and MacArthur- the three undertakers

They are the masters of the media pages. But are their targets not just a little obvious? By Ian Hargreaves
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Since 1993, there have been 40 changes of editor at Britain's national newspapers, and hundreds of changes of staff as each editor who moves triggers his own domino effect. Part of this turmoil, and more recently witness to it, are our three most influential media commentators, Roy Greenslade of The Guardian, Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail and Brian MacArthur of The Times.

I see them as a firm of undertakers. Greenslade, for the heavy lifting, Glover the sallow expression of skin-deep condolence and MacArthur to make sure the business is run properly.

Of the three, MacArthur is the most widely informed, the least vicious and so the least discussed. Having edited three titles and worked on nine, his approach is that of the feature writer, advancing his own opinions mostly in the safe company of quotes and even a little evidence. Greenslade too is better writing a reported feature than pontificating in a column, though he does both, quite often on the same day in the pages of the hugely prosperous Media Guardian.

Glover is the high priest of pontification: a writer for whom the pleasure of the incision, not the purpose of the operation, is what counts.

He is, essentially, a reviewer - paid to exaggerate and allergic to consistency. His best writing appears in The Spectator (to which he has just returned) rather than those publications like the Daily Mail which presumably underwrite his Beefsteak Club lifestyle and is characterised by a fogeyish irony which comes menacingly close to contempt. Ever since I have known him, he has looked fashionably fifty, although he is still only 46.

Whereas MacArthur started early accumulating a vast range of practical skills at the Yorkshire Post, the Mail and The Guardian, Gloverwent straight from Oxford to the Daily Telegraph and stayed for seven years. Those who worked under him when he briefly edited The Independent on Sunday recall a man who at moments of high stress would wander among his troops offering tots of whiskey, rather than help re-jigging the copy.

In Glover's gripping but unforgiving book about the creation of The Independent, he wrote that the pounds 400,000 Kensington home of his co-founder, Andreas Whittam Smith, had been "acquired through careful management of his salary" - implying an economic distinction which would simply not occur to most of us.

The fact that so many of Glover's judgments are rooted in or affect a kind of snobbery may explain why when he writes for Middle England in the more serious but uni-dimensional Daily Mail, he lacks sparkle.

This is especially so when he discusses television, a subject with which he appears to be chiefly familiar through books and newspapers. It is significant that none of the Three Undertakers has worked in broadcasting, although Greenslade did, for a while, present Radio 4's now defunct Medium Wave.

Like Glover, Roy Greenslade survived only 14 months in an editor's chair - in his case that of The Mirror. Apart from this, it is difficult to think of a point the two have in common. Greenslade started work on the Barking Advertiser at the age of 16 and served time on The Sun under both Larry Lamb and Kelvin Mackenzie. He broke from newspapers in his late 20s to take a politics degree at Sussex University and is a mainstay of the happy band of journalists which meets above L'Etoile in Charlotte Street to plot the downfall of the monarchy.

Greenslade excels at exposing to the sensitive characters who espouse Guardian values the "hidden wiring" - the phrase belongs to hisformer colleague Alastair Campbell - of the red-top tabloids. Although Kelvin Mackenzie says his former assistant has become so sanctimonious he ought to wear a dog collar, Greenslade's account of stories like the News of the World sting on the directors of Newcastle United offer rare illumination of a subject which is of some public importance.

You do not have to agree with Greenslade's view that "the British tabloid press were the indirect underlying cause" of the car crash that killed Princess Diana to be glad that he is on the case about press ethics.

The strength of Greenslade, Glover and MacArthur is that they know their own business. When MacArthur writes of press coverage of the Starr report you're hearing from someone who knows the difference between Windows, Atex and the Mac. It is as if your football commentary came directly from Ruud Gullit or your politics from Peter Mandelson (or Derek Draper.)

It is, therefore, a strength with an obvious limitation: all three writers are to some extent prisoners of their friendships and their employment contracts. They know an enormous amount, but like true insiders must show caution about what they reveal to you, the reader.

At its most obvious, this merely disables the media pundit from soiling his own patch, with the result that analysis of the affairs of the titles closest to home is either non-existent or lame - viz Greenslade recently upon the Florentine decline of The Observer under The Guardian's ownership or MacArthur (passim) on the affairs of Mr Murdoch.

Not that either shows embarrassment - MacArthur's Starr report piece, though soused with inside knowledge, did not hesitate to hail The Times's first edition as unmatched by any rival.

If you stand outside this hardly charming circle, you have a problem. Since the Murdoch man can't hammer Murdoch's papers and the Telegraph/Associated man (Glover) must show delicacy towards the Mails and Conrad Black and since Greenslade had better be careful about The Guardian and The Observer, at whom can they direct their polemical arrows?

The Daily Sport is not worth the bother and the Financial Times is a paper which, for some reason, does not interest The Undertakers, even though it is Britain's only global newspaper and one with sales far ahead of The Independent.

That leaves Lord Hollick's Express/Star stable and The Independent titles, all of which have a wide array of authentic pundit bruises to prove my point.

The answer is obvious. Just as football teams must have as mascot a spindly lad who runs on to the pitch with the real players at the start of the game and then retires to the bench to leaf through his autograph book, so every newspaper group must have its very own media pundit, a miniature gladiator to engage in a cameo version of the real circulation war between titles.

Whether anyone else outside the media business wants to observe the result is hardly the point: media pundits write for other media people, not for any old Tom, Dick or Harry. In fact, if you re reading this and you're not a member of the Groucho Club, buzz off. As I used to write in my Vere Foster penmanship book at primary school. "Only people in glasshouses are allowed to throw stones."

Ian Hargreaves edited `The Independent' in 1994-95 and the `New Statesman' in 1996-1998. Next month, he becomes Professor of Journalism at University of Wales, Cardiff and will write a media column for the `New Statesman'



Born: 31 December 1946

Dagenham County High School; Sussex University (BA Hons Politics)

Managing editor, Sunday Times,

1987-90; editor, Daily Mirror, February 1990-March 1991; consultant editor, Today and Sunday Times, 1991; media

columnist Evening Standard, The Guardian. 1996-.

On Piers Morgan's `Achtung

Surrender' headline about the

German football team: "Piers, sadly, is the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. The wrong man

because his natural reflexes are Tory, the wrong place because his training was entirely at The Sun, and the wrong time because the Mirror is going through its worst period since the war."

On the press after Diana: "It amounts to an unashamed attempt to cash in on the enduring fame of the woman whose celebrity the press helped to foster and whose death it helped to hasten."


Born: 13 January 1952

Shrewsbury School, Mansfield

College, Oxford (MA)

Daily Telegraph feature writer and

parliamentary sketch writer, 1978-85;

Independent foreign editor 1986-89;

editor Independent on Sunday,

1990-91; associate editor, Evening Standard, 1992-95; columnist Daily Mail, Spectator, 1995-.

On Piers Morgan: "Mr Morgan, whom I have never met, seems to have an anarchic temperament, a love of

destruction deployed for its own sake rather than in pursuit of some specific principle."

On Diana's death: "I hope it is not

idiotically naive of me to think that the shocking death of Diana may not only unite our nation in grief but also restore good sense and decency to the tabloid newspapers we read."


Born: 5 February 1940

Brentwood School, Helsby

Grammar School, Leeds University

Deputy editor Sunday Times, 1982-84; editor Western Morning News,

1984-85; editor in chief Today

1986-87;executive editor Sunday Times, 1987-91, executive editor The Times, 1991-95; associate editor The Times, 1995-.

On Piers Morgan: "It is difficult not to feel a sneaking sympathy for him and to think it is better a mass tabloid editor is occasionally too outrageous than too timid."

On the press after Diana: "Prince Charles and his two sons enjoyed their summer yachting holiday near Greece without a single photograph appearing in the British press. How different from the fate of Diana a year ago. Some things really have changed."