In my early days in Fleet Street, the Press Club was a place to take money off Jak, the Evening Standard's late great cartoonist, at the snooker table. Now that I am more involved, as chairman of the club, I have discovered that the press club movement is becoming a serious international phenomenon. We recently hosted a meeting in London of 25 press clubs from around the world, including delegates from Paris, Berlin and New York, but also from places as remote as Yerevan and Moldova.
Two things struck me about the journalists from the fledgling democracies of Eastern Europe. The first is that they welcome such international links because they can be used as a shield to protect them and their newspapers from government harassment. The other is that they believe profoundly in the importance of the press as a powerful force for good in a country's political, moral, educational and economic development. At a time when it is fashionable to write off the press as a dinosaur relic in the age of the Internet, this was refreshing news.
I sense that the tide is turning in that debate. In a recent lecture the Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger, gave a powerful riposte to claims that the print medium is doomed. I was interested also in an interview with Ivan Fallon, the chief executive of Independent News & Media, which owns this paper. INM has recently invested in newspapers in India. Far from being an industry in decline, Fallon said newspapers there are taking off in a big way. The Asian Age, launched in 1994, is the most literate English-language paper in the country and compares with the best in Britain or America.
Because of the common language, we are over-influenced by news and trends from the United States and know too little about developments in the non-English-speaking world. As Martin Bright pointed out in the New Statesman, our ministers only read English-language papers. Hence, perhaps, our support for Bush in Iraq and hence, too, the Home Secretary's interest in following the US example of Megan's Law in relation to paedophile offences. We should look to Scandinavia for such ideas, rather than America, where the criminal justice system is in a mess. Unfortunately, we can't read De Telegraaf or Aftonbladet.
That's a pity, because the press in Holland, Finland, Iceland and Norway are ranked highest in the world in terms of press freedom, according to an index by Reporters Sans Frontières. Britain comes 31st - which only goes to show how complacent we have become, both about the quality and relative freedom of our press.
Rupert Murdoch, ever alert to international trends, has appointed the former Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, to the board of News International. The group claims this does not mean it has any plans to invest in Spanish language media, but then it would say that, wouldn't it?
In fact, the press in Spain itself is highly profitable, and also impressive in quality, especially so in design, investigations and global coverage. Even though they only came into existence after the death of Franco in 1975, four of their papers - El Pais, El Mundo, La Vanguardia and Marca, the sports paper - are among the best in the world. They also have an excellent press club in Barcelona - though it is sadly devoid of a snooker table.
Simpson and Mullin: on the attack, and in the wrong
There are valid ways of attacking the press - and silly ones. Here are two silly ones. John Simpson used an address to the Churches' Media Conference to attack "the complete lack of press regulation" in Britain, prompting a devastating response from Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission.
Simpson had some important facts wrong, which Sir Christopher took pleasure in correcting. There was also an amusingly topical exchange about football. Simpson likened the PCC to "a referee in one of the rougher Latin American football matches. There is so much corruption that the referee just lets them play on."
Meyer said he liked the metaphor - "but it was more like the game between England and Sweden: robust, fearless, not always pretty to watch, with a good referee who knew when to let play go on and when to curb the worst excesses. That's the PCC and the press." To my mind Meyer won hands down - helped by Simpson's own goal.
The other silly attack on the press comes in the form of no fewer than four early day motions attacking the Daily Telegraph put down by Chris Mullin, the left-leaning Labour member for Sunderland South. He is critical of four articles: two editorials, a front-page story by the paper's political editor, George Jones, and an economics column. One of the motions, supported by 27 Labour MPs, "regrets the growing tabloidisation of The Telegraph" and "calls upon the editor of The Telegraph to require a minimum standard of integrity from its political editors and sub-editors".
In two of the motions, however, there is a tell-tale phrase that gives the game away. He "regrets that The Daily Telegraph was unable to find space for a letter". So here we have a frustrated letter writer using his parliamentary privileges to gain himself publicity, which some people might regard as an abuse of his position as an MP.
John Bryant, The Daily Telegraph editor in question, seems unfazed by the attacks. "We get 500 letters a day and publish about 20. People are bound to be disappointed. Had Mr Mullin accused us of an inaccuracy, I would gladly look into the matter. But he just disagreed with us. He is entitled to his opinions, and so are we."
Where not to speak ill of the living
WHEN I read about an international gathering of obituary writers in New Mexico, my mind went back four decades to the time I edited a newspaper in Malawi. I was alarmed to discover that the paper held no obits, so I commissioned one of the then Prime Minister, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. When I sent the copy to the composing room it caused a commotion. I found all the African printers reading it over the shoulder of one of the comps.
"What's the problem?" I asked. "Dr Banda isn't dead," said the senior printer. "I know that," I said. "This is just in case something happens to him, so that we can get the story out quickly." The printers politely explained that in their culture it was bad luck to speak of someone as though they were dead - and refused to set the copy. I was left with an odd feeling that their attitude may be better than ours.Reuse content