George Jones: Political doyen is reborn for the digital age

George Jones of the 'Telegraph' covered Westminster for decades. The Press Association sees him as the perfect analyst for the modern media era, writes Andy McSmith
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The Independent Online

There are two institutions that political journalists never expected would change. One is the Press Association, a news service whose output has reached almost every newspaper reader in the country at some time or another, though few of them know it. The other is George Jones, for years the evergreen political editor of The Daily Telegraph.

Since it was bought by the Barclay Brothers, the Telegraph has been through a convulsion. A large number of journalists have moved on. Eventually, even George Jones, who was heading the newspaper's political team when Arthur Scargill was leading the great miners' strike, packed his bags. The days when you could not turn to a news page in The Daily Telegraph without seeing the words "by George Jones" or turn on a rolling news channel without seeing Jones commenting on the day's developments are over.

Meanwhile, those who thought that the Press Association was simply a team of reporters with faultless shorthand who took down long quotations that other reporters lifted without acknowledgement are mistaken. The old PA, which will be 140 next year, has moved into the digital age. It is the supplier of that five-day-a-week text, video and picture news service on AOL, the Big Story; it also supplies news output for MSN and Tiscali.

And Jones, his solid lifetime of old-fashioned newspaper reporting in tow, will add gravitas to this new enterprise. As PA's special correspondent, he will lay on punchy 30-second or three-minute instant analyses of political events. It is, he confesses, different from journalism as he knew it when he left school.

"I started as a journalist at the age of 18 in 1963, the year President Kennedy was shot," Jones says. "I have seen enormous changes. Throughout my career in newspapers, people have said newspapers will never survive. First of all television was going to kill newspapers. Then the internet was going to kill them. I don't think it will, but the way people get news has changed.

"There is no longer a fixed point of the day when people expect to get their news. Once upon a time, the morning newspaper was when you got your news. Then people would wait for The Six O'Clock News or Nine O'Clock News. Now you can sit at your desk and have news when you like."

Although the new job means that he will be based at the PA headquarters near London's Victoria Station, he will still have the lobby pass that gives him access to the Commons, his place of work for 34 of his 44 years in journalism. In 1973, he joined The Times as part of its 10-strong team of what were then called gallery reporters. His colleagues included his older brother, Nick, who went on to become a BBC journalist, and John Deans, formerly of the Daily Mail, who now runs the Conservative Party press office. Phil Webster, the present political editor of The Times, joined later.

The team had to jot down every word said in the House of Commons, write it up on manual typewriters, and place the copy in a basket, which a messenger would take across the room to the teleprinter (Fleet Street demarcation rules forbade the journalists to hand their copy directly to the teleprinter operator). The operator punched the copy into the machine, and it came up on tape in The Times office, where another messenger was employed to tear the copy off and into a basket, and yet another messenger to take it from the basket to the sub-editors' desk.

"The first line of the copy you wrote was 'The Speaker took the chair at half past two o'clock'," Jones recalls. "You wrote it out like that. And if you were on the late shift, the last thing you wrote was 'The House adjourned at 11.30, or 12.30, or whenever it was.

"There weren't names attached in the paper in those days. You just had 'by our political correspondent'. The lobby was a highly secretive organisation, still almost operating on the kind of rules which enabled the Wallis Simpson affair not to be reported. But that all went with the expansion of the media."

In the 1970s, newspapers were most people's only source of detailed information about the working of the House of Commons. Coverage of the speeches and other Commons business filled an entire page of the old broadsheet Times. Now, MP speeches are barely covered by the print media at all, as Tony Blair pointed out in the valedictory speech in which he attacked journalists as "feral beasts" and singled out The Independent to illustrate what he thinks has gone wrong with newspapers.

Blair had a point, in Jones's opinion, but he was the wrong man to be making it, given how little respect he showed Parliament during his 10 years as Prime Minister. The fact that newspapers have stopped covering Parliament in detail, Jones says, is just an indication that Parliament has lost influence. As, he says, have political journalists at newspapers.

"Now, broadcast journalists are far more important than newspaper journalists. So at the Prime Minister's press conference, you get a question from Nick Robinson, then Adam Boulton, then, um who's the ITN political editor Tom Bradby, sorry and then channel Five," he said. "Newspaper correspondents come way down the order of priority. That's not a complaint, it's just an observation. It's a reflection of the fact that politicians now see television as their main medium.

"Even in the short time that I've been with PA, I've alsonoticed that politicians are prepared to talk and give interviews online they recognise that there is an audience out there. I think it's different from a newspaper audience; it may well be different from a TV audience. I think online is bringing in a new audience.

"People of my generation are visitors to the digital age. Anybody who has got children under about 20 knows they are citizens of the digital age. They may pick up a newspaper occasionally, but I don't think they are going to be regular newspaper readers. There is a generation coming that expects to get their information digitally. For me, this is a great opportunity to have a new start."