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Donald Trelford on the Press

The top man's job is to take the rap, even if he was out of the office

Newspapers are a unique kind of business, someone ventured over dinner the other night: "In no other business do the owners and managers have no control over the product." This is largely true, in the sense that editors are not told what to publish by their boards or commercial managements though these can affect content by controlling purse strings. Equally, some newspapers have powerful ancestral voices that limit their freedom to ditch editorial policies that are part of the paper's identity.

A big change in my half-century in the business is that newspapers now proclaim their editorial independence, whereas in the past they would be proud to say they were a Tory, Liberal or Labour paper. The fourth Lord Rothermere was at it the other day in evidence about his proprietorship of Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail, to the Lords Communications Committee: "While ... on the board, I have never taken part in a discussion about what should be in our newspapers."

This is a concept his great-grandfather, Harold, the first Lord Rothermere, would have found incredible. He used to lead the front page with his campaigns for Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts or Hungary regaining its lost territories. Jonathan Rothermere's comments set me thinking. His grandfather, Esmond, nearly ruined the paper by changing editors every five minutes. When Vere, the third Lord Rothermere, took over, the failing Mail was about to be merged with Beaverbrook's Daily Express. He refused to give in and backed his editor, David English, through some dark times and finally triumphed over his main rival (after Beaverbrook's death). So it could be said his proprietorship, albeit passive in a sense, created the success that Associated Newspapers is today, just as Beaverbrook's dictatorial direction of the Express group created the best papers of the mid-20th century. When his son says he prides himself on not getting involved in editorial matters, one feels compelled to echo a character in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop: "Up to a point, Lord Copper."

So-called "proprietorial interference" can be good or bad, depending on the proprietor and what he knows about journalism. As someone who was harassed to promote his company's interests by the late Tiny Rowland, I have some experience of this. But at least Lonrho leant on me openly, whereas the subtle pressure of an earlier owner, Atlantic Richfield, the American oil company, to abandon The Observer's liberal political values and back Margaret Thatcher, was more insidious because the readers knew nothing about it (the real aim was to curry favour in the hope of securing North Sea oil and gas licences).

Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail probably has more independence and power than any editor in history, yet one has to wonder if that would be true if the Daily Mail & General Trust wasn't making such handsome profits. Another who gives off a god-like air of independence is Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of the Guardian. Both editors have earned their apparent impregnability through creating a distinctive and successful commercial brand.

I find it all the more surprising, therefore, that in his legal battle with Tesco, which is suing the paper for claiming (incorrectly) that it avoided paying a billion pounds in tax, Rusbridger should argue that he was otherwise engaged when the articles were published. He did not attend the key editorial conference preceding publication; he "was heavily involved in the integration of the Guardian and Observer titles... he played no further part in shaping, writing or editing the editorial due to his other commitments", and so on.

Obviously, when confronted by an angry commercial giant such as Tesco and a claim for millions of pounds in damages, a paper must produce the best defence it can, and I don't presume to comment on the quality of the legal argument that may be for a court to decide. But I do have a concern that a fundamental principle involving editorial authority may be compromised.

This same argument that the editor of a large newspaper operation cannot be personally responsible for the accuracy of every part of the product was once used by Harold Evans in a contempt case early in his reign as editor of The Sunday Times. In a picture caption, on the eve of a criminal case involving the radical leader Michael X, the paper had described him as a "former brothel-keeper". It was successfully claimed on the editor's behalf that he couldn't be held personally responsible for every caption in such a big paper.

The journalist who wrote the caption, the late Laurence Marks, resigned in protest at what he regarded as a failure of support by the paper, and defected to me at The Observer. Harry's loss was my gain, but I thought then, and I think now in Rusbridger's case, that the argument is a dangerous one. Editors carry enormous authority among their journalists and rightly so. This is not just a matter of fear for their jobs, but of respect for the office.

An editor's authority rests on the fact he is the man who goes to jail if things go wrong. If he can wriggle out of that responsibility, if it turns out that he is only one apparatchik among many, why should anyone defer to him?

Barnes should try, try, try again

Heaven knows, we're all guilty of making lousy predictions. It's a professional hazard. I remember a front-page lead by Nora Beloff in The Observer on the eve of the 1970 general election (won by Ted Heath's Conservatives): "Labour to win by 100 seats". We also listed the companies who would win the ITV franchises one year and got them all wrong. The classic, of course, was Arthur Christiansen's headline in the Daily Express of 1938: "No War This Year or Next Year Either."

But the first sentence of a recent piece by Stuart Barnes in The Sunday Times is becoming a legend among sports writers: "Leicester Tigers have no chance in today's play-off game against Gloucester". No qualification, no hedging, no ifs or buts. Leicester won. Stuart was a bold, attacking rugby player and has become a bold, attacking sports commentator. Let's hope he won't be deterred by one spilled pass.

* When I last wrote this column, a couple of months ago, I urged the editor of The Daily Telegraph, Will Lewis, to restore readers' letters to the top of the page they had been placed underneath an editorial column. I am delighted to see that this has now been done.

I can't be sure that the decision was a result of reading this column, but I'll take the credit anyway.

The author was editor of 'The Observer', 1975-93, and is Emeritus Professor in Journalism Studies at Sheffield University