How the Telegraph shambles happened

Stephen Glover reports on the machinations behind the resignation of editor Martin Newland
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The Independent Online

In resigning as editor of The Daily Telegraph, Martin Newland has done the honourable, and sensible, thing. It is difficult to think of another editor who has been as abused, ignored and taken for granted by any newspaper management as Mr Newland has over recent months.

Two weeks ago, he learnt that John Bryant had been appointed editor-in-chief of the Telegraph Group over his head. He went off to his lawyers to see whether he had a case for constructive dismissal. Then, an editorial that he wished to publish in favour of David Cameron as leader of the Tory party was vetoed on the verge of publication by Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the Telegraph Group, probably on instructions from the chairman, Aidan Barclay. Mr Newland has had enough.

The main thorn in his flesh has been Mr MacLennan. Some weeks ago, Mr MacLennan, aka Lord McGifty on account of his great generosity, hatched the idea of poaching Jon Steafel from the Daily Mail as Mr Newland's deputy. Mr Steafel did not bite, but Mr MacLennan has been instrumental in several recent appointments - Simon Heffer as associate editor, Will Lewis as city editor, and Roy Greenslade as media pundit. The appointment of Jeff Randall as editor-at-large and columnist seems to have been the work of Mr Barclay.

Gradually, Mr Newland has found himself surrounded by people whom he had not chosen, and who owed their allegiance to Mr MacLennan. Guy Black, Michael Howard's former spin doctor appointed by Lord McGifty as corporate affairs director, has begun to take an interest in editorial affairs. Mr Black recently issued an instruction to editorial that Daily Telegraph columnists were not to make too much of the attack by Rebekah Wade on her husband. (Mr Black is a close friend of both parties.) Mr Black has also teamed up with Mr Heffer in arguing that The Daily Telegraph should not declare unreservedly for Mr Cameron. In these circumstances, Mr Newland had no option but to resign, though it might be argued that he should have jumped sooner. He has been editor for just over two years, having been appointed, to general astonishment, by Conrad Black in the dying days of his proprietorship. (There is a certain symmetry in that Mr Newland's resignation should follow hard on the heels of the news that Lord Black is being charged with fraud in the United States.) Mr Newland may not have been a great editor, and he was perhaps too prone to discussing his prospects of retaining his job with members of his staff, but he did keep the show on the road during the difficult transition from Lord Black to the Barclay brothers, who finally acquired the Telegraph Group nearly 18 months ago.

Mr Bryant will now take over as acting editor pending the appointment of a successor to Mr Newland. Who might this be? If Mr MacLennan and his colleagues were sure of the answer to that question, they might already have chosen someone. Possibly they will alight on Mr Randall, who is close to Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, and to Sir David's son, Aidan. Young Mr Lewis is keen to have the job. Or they might go for the popular and lively Sarah Sands, who not long ago was installed as editor of The Sunday Telegraph after the dismissal of Dominic Lawson. Mr Heffer will fancy his chances, but the Barclays would, in my view, be unwise to choose as editor a right-wing ideologue not very expert in the practicalities of newspaper production.

Having treated Mr Newland as it has, the Telegraph's management is unlikely to attract a first-class candidate without offering cast-iron guarantees that he or she will not be dealt with in a similar way. An editor must be allowed to make his own appointments within set budgets, and not have senior colleagues pressed upon him by management. He should be allowed to pursue an editorial line within boundaries agreed with his proprietors, and not have members of the management issuing their own editorial instructions or becoming involved in editorial policy. What has being going on at The Daily Telegraph amounts to an unforgivable shambles, and it is surely time that the Barclays, or at least Aidan Barclay, banged a few heads together (even though the brothers maintain that they do not get involved in editorial matters).

There is a question mark as to whether this Telegraph management, which is entirely new, is capable of plotting a calm and considered course for the newspaper. It seems to be making up new rules as it goes along. The first step is to appoint a strong editor who understands The Daily Telegraph and its readers. He, or she, should answer solely to Aidan Barclay, not Mr MacLennan or Mr Black or any other member of the management. Their job is to run the business, not the newspaper, and if established and well-tried conventions continue to be flouted in this way it is certain that disaster will follow.

The Barclays have another problem. Having paid a little over the odds for the Telegraph Group, and borrowed a good deal of money, they find that, despite considerable cost-cutting, their new acquisition is not delivering the juicy profits they expected and require. Last year, the group made a reduced operating profit of £31.5m, though the prospectus accompanying the sale of the Telegraph Group had foreseen annual profits of some £50m. To put it mildly, these are not mouth-watering returns for a newspaper group that cost the Barclays some £660m. A large part of the problem is an advertising recession that is affecting most titles. Pending the installation of its new presses, The Daily Telegraph can only offer limited opportunities for coloured advertisements. In a depressed market, black-and-white spots are not achieving attractive yields.

If I were the Barclays I would be a little worried. Facing declining profits, and loaded with not insubstantial debt, the last thing they need is chaos on the editorial floor. The truth is that creating an entirely new management structure from scratch is devilishly difficult. Conrad Black, for all his weaknesses, was a newspaperman, and he developed a management that worked in its way, and understood how to co-exist with editorial. One possible avenue for the Barclays would be to seek an investor to take a large minority stake, and ideally bring in some management expertise. My guess - and it certainly is a guess; I have not been told - is that the Daily Mail and General Trust might dearly like to fulfill such a role. But I doubt that the Barclays have yet reached the point where they would wish to sell a minority stake to anyone.

First find a strong editor. Mr Bryant's job as editor-in-chief will have to be redesignated, since no editor worth his salt will want anyone peering over his shoulder. Then put Mr MacLennan, gifted chief executive though he may be, back in his box.

He and the rest of management must get on with what they were hired to do - managing the business, not second-guessing editorial.

scmgox@aol.com

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