Bill Hagerty on the Press

All the news that's fit to print (unless it reflects badly on us)
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The Independent Online

Life can be precarious for the media columnist, as Stephen Glover has just proved and I may be about to discover. Glover felt obligated to resign from his position at The Spectator when editor Boris Johnson declined to publish his piece on troubles at the Telegraph. Pressure on Johnson appears to have been brought by the Barclay brothers, relatively new proprietors of the group that owns the newspapers and The Spectator, and a reclusive duo whose idea of good publicity is no publicity.

Life can be precarious for the media columnist, as Stephen Glover has just proved and I may be about to discover. Glover felt obligated to resign from his position at The Spectator when editor Boris Johnson declined to publish his piece on troubles at the Telegraph. Pressure on Johnson appears to have been brought by the Barclay brothers, relatively new proprietors of the group that owns the newspapers and The Spectator, and a reclusive duo whose idea of good publicity is no publicity.

Fiercely protective of their privacy, the brothers are patently uncomfortable in the media spotlight, which is a bit like a vet being scared of animals. Although editor Martin Newlands may not concur, the disappearance of The Daily Telegraph's lively media page not long after the Barclays took over smacks of a proprietorial foray into the editorial area. Now Glover - among the most respected and widely read of media pundits - has bowed out, and one does not have to be a skilled astrologer to predict confidently that coverage of the media may not figure largely in the future plans of The Spectator.

At a seminar on media journalism I attended recently in Lugano, the keynote speech from Hugo Bütler, editor-in-chief of the leading Swiss newspaper, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, addressed the problems of the poor, vulnerable media hack.

"There are limits to self-criticism within the trade and within a company," he observed, recalling that the Spanish daily El Pais fired its star literary critic, Ignacio Echevarria, after 14 years' service because he rubbished a novel published by a house owned by the paper's publishers. In media journalism, he continued, "there is the danger of slipping into trite denigration of one's competitors... and cheap praise of the products of one's own companies". There was a need to establish "a clear distinction between the publisher's interest and editorial obligations".

Not for the majority of publishers, there isn't. Although they are in the news business, the majority of those who control our national papers strongly believe that one does not wee on one's own doorstep, although it is perfectly permissible to urinate from a great height on any and all of the opposition.

Media commentators are not daft. As Stephen Glover told me, no media columnist is likely to savage the newspaper for which he or she works, but if something significant happens in the company, the writer must to be allowed to refer to it in print. As you can see from Glover's piece on the opposite page, he was not overtly hostile to the Barclays in commenting on the cost-cutting measures they have introduced. But it obviously offended the proprietors' sensibilities - heaven knows how they will react if some really poisonous barbs fly their way.

In Lugano, Hugo Bütler did not mention that another bête noire of managements is publication in their own newspapers of stories that might - just might - be considered by readers to reflect badly on the company. Hence, on the morning following the Telegraph group's announcement that 90 members of the editorial staff were to be made redundant, and the journalists' immediate threat to ballot for strike action, not one word about it appeared in The Daily Telegraph. The other serious papers covered the story, but the only "in-house" item in the Telegraph was a slab on page three celebrating the 80th anniversary of its crossword. The Telegraph is not alone. Most newspapers, this one included, will trumpet their successes but are loath to keep readers informed of any problems. But news is news, and its suppression - and the denial of specialists' rights to comment fairly on it - is censorship that makes authoritative media journalism unattainable.

Free dinner? There's no such thing...

When it comes to the national press, the Prime Minister knows who his friends are. The list of more than 300 guests entertained at Chequers during his first term revealed that only likely Labour supporters were invited to break bread in Buckinghamshire.

The list covers the period from May 1997 until early 2001, so you can bet that Rosie Boycott tripped off to the Chilterns sometime before January 2001, when she resigned as editor of the Daily Express. Whether the paper's then new proprietor, Richard Desmond, subsequently received an invitation remains to be discovered, but having deserted Labour for the Tories it's likely that at present he'd be found somewhere below the salt.

The Chequers visit of David Montgomery would surely have been before the spring of 1999, when shareholder power drove him from office as chief executive of the Mirror Group. The man who demanded his resignation and remains chairman of the group, Sir Victor Blank, is doubtless still welcome, as would be Les Hinton, head of News International and the most powerful of all the newspaper invitees (although whether he's still persona grata after the forthcoming election remains to be seen).

The Guardian-associated flying wedge of Alan Rusbridger - the only editor on the list - Will Hutton, Polly Toynbee and David Walker remains largely onside. Representatives of Associated Newspapers, the Telegraph and this paper were conspicuous by their absence. It only goes to prove there's no such thing as a free dinner.

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