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Media: Max has failed to set the Standard

The Neil Report
There was a time when London's Evening Standard was the most influential newspaper in Britain. That might seem an impossible accolade for a regional evening paper, even if the region is the capital of an over-centralised nation in which almost everything that matters happens in the metropolis. But for much of the Eighties, first of all under the editorship of Paul Dacre, then (to a lesser extent) under his successor, Stewart Steven, it was nevertheless true.

As editor of the Sunday Times, I remember sitting in my office in Wapping and daily asking my secretary if the first edition of the Standard had arrived so I could read it on my way to lunch. Each subsequent edition was just as eagerly anticipated, such was the high regard with which the paper was held in Fleet Street circles.

Nowhere more so than at the national dailies. The bacon of many a news editor was saved by a quick scan of the Standard before news conference so that he (it was generally a he) could beef up the next day's news list before he had to face his editor.

This is what gave the Standard a huge influence on the national press: what it chose to make the page-one splash of its West End edition was invariably what the nationals ran with next day. The Standard's spin on a particular story was also regularly reflected in the nationals.

I once used its power to influence to my advantage. When I decided to resign from Fox TV in New York at the end of 1994 because Rupert Murdoch could not make his mind up what kind of network news show he wanted, I knew there would be plenty in Fleet Street anxious to make mischief of our split. So I gave the Standard an exclusive interview 24 hours before the story broke, putting the best possible spin on my resignation. The Standard ran it. I spoke to nobody else, and the nationals dutifully followed the Standard line the next morning.

It wasn't just its news coverage. The paper boasted columnists of stature and authority, such as Max Hastings and Brian Walden (I pinched them both for the Sunday Times), so its political comment had national influence as well. Its London coverage was also excellent: it exuded the feeling that you could not hope to have your finger on the pulse of the capital or live London life to the full without regularly reading the Standard.

And everybody who mattered did: ministers, MPs, civil servants, business folk, City types, media movers and shakers. It has a monopoly hold on the capital's readership, and in terms of influence, it was the closest Britain had to the Washington Post. There was much justifiable preening in the Standard's offices. Sadly, nobody is saying the same today.

It is not that today's Standard is a bad paper, although it is a shadow of its former self. It still goes through the motions of covering all the news and printing all the features that matter to those of us who live in London. Yet it curiously fails to connect with the capital. It is disengaged from developments that matter; it fails to capture the capital's zeitgeist; and it reports "new" trends after they have become passe. It is no longer a "must read".

The blame for this can only lie with its current editor, Max Hastings, though it is not really his fault - he is just the wrong man for the job. He is a formidable journalist who did a superb job in gradually dragging the Daily Telegraph into the latter part of the 20th century without the more reactionary of its readers noticing. When Conrad Black finally decided to dispense with him because he was not sufficiently Thatcherite, many of us were rather puzzled that he then decided to accept Lord Rothermere's shilling to go and work at the Standard.

Max, after all, is very conscious of his status. The move from national broadsheet editor to editor of a regional tabloid (even a prestigious one) was perceived, especially by the rather snobbish peer group around him, as a step down. He must have felt that himself. Nor could those who know him work out why he bothered. Why accept the drudge and hard slog of daily tabloid editing when a more leisurely (if not so remunerative) life of writing books, penning columns and broadcasting beckoned?

Unless, of course, he needed the money (some say he took the Standard to finance an expensive divorce). But Max is from the old school of gentlemen journalists. He edited the Telegraph from a magisterial distance, enjoying long lunches with cabinet ministers and captains of industry, while his minions did the mundane editorial work.

But editing a daily evening paper is a treadmill. An editor who wants to make his mark on the Standard has to be in the office before 7am to see off the first edition and still be there at 8pm to sign off the next day's feature pages. This was how Dacre and Steven operated. But it is neither Max's style nor inclination.

You get the impression Max would rather be off killing defenceless animals in his beloved Leicestershire than poring over page proofs or tramping round the London social scene. He has a lofty disdain for the flotsam and jetsam of modern London life which make the capital tick.

He would rather be dining with county types in a grand country pile. But, as a result of this, he cannot be said to have his finger on London's pulse, nor to be at the cutting edge. Nor does it seem that he would wish to be. But his paper suffers because he has little appetite for London life: it is rather as if the editor of the Stanley Gibbons catalogue had no taste for stamp collecting.

At a time when London is widely regarded again as a "happening" place, among the top two or three international cities and seen, even among young continentals, as the undisputed capital of Europe, these should be the Standard's glory years. But you will get little sense of the excitement that has gripped London these past few years from the pages of its only evening newspaper. Even its once-famous diary is now unreadable.

I doubt if Max cares much about London's renaissance; indeed, he probably has a visceral dislike for many of the manifestations of an age in which Soho House matters more than Brooks. But the Standard is also lacking in areas that he does care about.

The paper has lost its political authority. News editors can no longer depend upon it for last-minute inspiration. It is hard to take seriously a publication that tells its readers to vote Labour yet has an editor who says he will still be voting Tory because Labour is against fox-hunting.

Moreover, with the exception of Simon Jenkins, there are few columnists worth reading: most of the men are dull (bar the TV and arts critics, who are amusing); the women, who all seem to have been hired from the drabber school of journalism, are unremittingly dire.

The pink City pages always look like something of an afterthought, lacking the resources such a huge and vital industry based in the capital deserve. But what has happened to the Wednesday media pages under Max is the saddest symbol of all.

London is one of the great media capitals of the world, rivalled only by New York. The Standard's Media section used to sizzle with news, analysis and gossip. Today, the truncated media pages are hidden away at the back of the book among the travel and classified pages. Only dedicated media types bother to find them. When you do, they are not worth reading.

Max has little time for the media. Yet it is one of the booming industries of the information age which has put London on the map again. If you cannot cover it properly, you are not covering the capital. The myriad of media folk in the capital should be a key target audience for the Standard. Instead, they are virtually ignored by it.

It is difficult to see who the Standard is aiming at these days. Its circulation has not collapsed under Max, nor does it deserve to for the Standard still has many strengths. But sales have only been kept at an unimpressive 440,000 by heavy Rothermere expenditure.

It is always depressing to have to spend millions just to stand still (although even the wealthy Associated Newspapers was forced to raise the cover price to 35p last week). Now that there is a younger Rothermere at the helm of Associated Newspapers, it is unlikely matters will be allowed to stand as they are, especially since his editor-in-chief is none other than Paul Dacre, who presided over the Standard's glory years and has quickly made his mark on the Mail on Sunday.

There is no love lost between Paul and Max: socially and professionally they could not be more different. Max should bring his guns up to London: he's going to need them more in the corridors of Kensington High Street than among the hedgerows of Leicestershire if he is to survive. His friends will wonder aloud again: why does he want to?