Lies, damned lies and tittle-tattle

Andrew Neil can handle a little gossip. But why should media diaries be so full of inaccuracy and blatant untruth?

At least two media journalists were sent by
The Guardian to a recent bash held at the Dorchester to celebrate
The Scotsman passing 100,000 sales for the first time in its 183-year history. But coming mob-handed with media correspondents is no guarantee of accurate reporting. Quite the reverse: it only ensures more misleading, mischievous items for the media diary, while the real story is invariably mis-reported or missed altogether.

At least two media journalists were sent by The Guardian to a recent bash held at the Dorchester to celebrate The Scotsman passing 100,000 sales for the first time in its 183-year history. But coming mob-handed with media correspondents is no guarantee of accurate reporting. Quite the reverse: it only ensures more misleading, mischievous items for the media diary, while the real story is invariably mis-reported or missed altogether.

Media Guardian's report from the Dorchester claimed that last year's Scotsman price-cutting had cost £5m. In fact, what I had said was that the total cost of the relaunch of The Scotsman was between £4m and £5m.That included the cost of new tabloid and business sections, a new Saturday magazine, hiring better, more expensive journalists and several high-cost TV promotion campaigns. Price-cutting was still the single biggest cost of the relaunch strategy, accounting for about half the total.

To spend at least £4m in one year to reposition and reinvigorate a non-London newspaper represents a substantial investment and is a media story worthy of further investigation. It also raises some fundamental issues for Fleet Street, such as, is it possible successfully to reinvent a newspaper without cutting the price? But no one from The Guardian was interested.

Its journalists did not quiz me for more information on the detailed costs, at the Dorchester or on the phone afterwards. They were too busy concocting items for the media diary. The best they could do was a typically snide, irrelevant piece, pointing out that my yellow-framed glasses did not match my peach tie. It's good to know The Guardian has its finger on the pulse of the major media issues of the day.

The Guardian's media diary, of course, is no worse than those of the other broadsheets. Even this estimable organ's media diary, which is more accurate than most, sometimes gets it wrong. Last week it reported that Rebecca Hardy, the editor of The Scotsman, was seen at the Dorchester "locked in conspiratorial conversation" with Ian Monk, who handles PR for the Express Group. The implication was that she was being wooed to join the Express.

What the item did not mention was that Mr Monk also does PR for The Scotsman and had helped organise the Dorchester party for us. The editor and her PR adviser spoke together for a few minutes as part of a group, which included an executive from another paper, so it is unlikely they took the opportunity to hatch a conspiracy. But if diary readers had known that, there would have been no point in the item.

Media diaries in all the broadsheets have become cesspits of distortion, lies and invention. A malevolent hand, motivated more by a desire to smear and tarnish media reputations than to report the truth, mostly guides them. Normal journalistic standards, such as accuracy and checking facts, are suspended. If the facts get in the way of a juicy piece of gossip then, hey, junk the facts. When it comes to media diaries, broadsheets happily employ an old tabloid maxim: this story is too good to check.

Respectable broadsheet papers, proud of their editorial standards and journalists' reputations, seem to have no qualms about descending to the level of Private Eye's "Street of Shame" when it comes to covering their own industry's affairs. In its heyday, the Eye's Fleet Street diary was notoriously inaccurate, but it was in the Eye (where mischief matters more than truth), it was fun and those in the business knew to discount most of what it had to say (while quietly chuckling and wondering which bit really was true).

Today's media diaries are carbon copies of the "Street of Shame", which explains why the original is in decline: why peddle your media myths to the small-circulation magazine every fortnight when you can get them published in a respectable, widely-read broadsheet every week?

Everybody in the business, especially those on the receiving end, knows the appalling quality of media diaries. Jane Procter, former editor of Tatler, once had to endure an unpleasant series of items about her and her dog in the Telegraph diary. She does not have a dog. James Adams, former managing editor of The Sunday Times, was supposedly always off fishing in his vast Highland estates. He didn't own a croft and fished in Hampshire.

Most media diaries run such stories even though they know them to be untrue. The cumulative effect of disinformation can be dispiriting for those at the receiving end. The purpose of media diaries is not to educate or inform but to destroy a reputation and destabilise a competitor. The more the relaunch of The Scotsman is seen as a success, the more diary items appear predicting Ms Hardy's imminent departure.

The Times recently ran a story saying that she was resigning, without even bothering to check with her. Next day, The Scotsman published record sales figures - a strange time for a new editor to depart.

The Guardian's Lisa O'Carroll reported that Ms Hardy had been seen lunching recently with Chris Williams, the new editor of the Express - another rumour implying that our editor was about to jump ship. Ms O'Carroll, supposedly a reputable media correspondent, was told categorically that they had not lunched together since they had been colleagues on the Mail. She was informed, in a spirit of openness, that they had a drink several months ago when The Scotsman editor was trying to get Mr Williams (then on nobody's lips to be Express editor) to join her team. Such honesty paid no dividends. The denial was ignored and the original, untrue story ran.

There is nothing new in this. When I was editor of The Sunday Times, the media diaries were regularly filled with stories of my imminent demise. A London Evening Standard diarist once called me to confirm what he had been told by a "very reliable source": I was resigning from The Sunday Times. Not true, I said. He then said that he knew that I was about to leave Sky Television (I was then executive chairman). Untrue again, I informed him. "Look," he said impatiently, "I have a diary to fill. Is there nothing you've resigned from today?" Needless to say, when I did leave first Sky, then The Sunday Times, no diary or media correspondent managed to unearth the story in advance.

At least the man from the Standard had taken the trouble to call: most diary stories about me, my staff and our newspapers appear without anybody ever taking the trouble to call and verify them. There is no mystery why it should be so: if media diarists checked their stories, they'd be publishing blank columns most weeks.

"But journalists love the gossip and the back-stabbing," replied The Guardian's Ms O'Carroll when I remonstrated with her about yet another untrue diary item. Indeed we do. But does that mean we are allowed to suspend all the normal rules of reliable journalism when it comes to covering our own affairs? Why should media diaries be accuracy-free zones?

The media has never been more important. We have a duty, not just to ourselves but to the wider society, to report openly, fairly and accurately on an industry which is more influential than ever. Most editors and publishers seem to be blithely unaware of the corrosive effect media diaries are having on media journalism in general.

"I would not employ a single media correspondent, especially one who writes a diary, to do a proper, serious journalistic job," one newspaper editor recently told me. "They lie, distort and ignore any facts inconvenient to the gossip they want to peddle. I am amazed quality broadsheets are prepared to employ them." It is a damning epitaph for the way we currently cover our own industry.

Andrew Neil is Publisher of 'Sunday Business' and 'The Scotsman'

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