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Ian Burrell: Fleet Street still needs a champion to win its war of independence

Media Studies: Since the Leveson inquiry was announced, the press has lacked a credible figurehead
  • @iburrell

The launch of the "Independent" Royal Charter on the regulation of the press last Thursday was a significant moment, not least because it saw Rupert Murdoch's newspaper business going back on the front-foot in the public-relations arena. The humble days are over.

Wapping launched a publicity blitz. Chief executive Mike Darcey, acting editors John Witherow (The Times) and Martin Ivens (The Sunday Times), along with Richard Caseby, managing editor of The Sun, all made videos in support of the revised charter, criticising the version already approved by Parliament. Suddenly the newspaper company which brought the roof down on the industry, through the phone-hacking scandal, was very publicly in the front rank, fighting back against tighter controls on the press.

Dominic Mohan, editor of The Sun, contributed a written quote in which he complained that "Sun readers expect journalists to behave responsibly, but don't want them censored by a state-sponsored Ministry of Truth."

When Mohan was filmed giving evidence at the Leveson inquiry last year, the editor of Britain's brashest newspaper adopted the demeanour of a retiring bank clerk. The Sun editor could have delivered this latest point on camera but, with so many Sun reporters on bail, News International's savvy communications team may have realised the high potential for mischief if such footage began to circulate on social media.

So Witherow – once a low-profile editor at the Sunday Times but now a confident media-performer – took the lead along with Darcey, who recently arrived at Wapping after a successful period at BSkyB. The key messages were that the regulation system being proposed was "independent" and would cost the public "nothing". There was no mention of the company's former paper, the News of the World, despite its central role in the saga.

The alternative Royal Charter is not a News International initiative alone. It is the work of an alliance of the most powerful national newspaper companies, including the publishers of the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Express. It has the backing of the Newspaper Society, which represents more than 1,000 local papers across Britain.

For months it has been Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Mail, which has done the heavy lifting in opposing regulatory changes deemed to inhibit the freedom of the press. The alternative charter was announced last week by Associated's editor emeritus Peter Wright, the former editor of the Mail on Sunday, in an interview on Radio 4's The World at One. But News International is in the van of this newspaper fightback, shoulder-to-shoulder with the Mail.

News International CEO Mike Darcey said in his corporate video that the alternative charter was the position of the press "national and regional, left and right, tabloid and broadsheet", but the move was made without the backing of the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Independent and the London Evening Standard, the titles which have been most prepared to accept tougher regulation.

Since the Leveson inquiry was announced, the press has lacked a credible figurehead who can connect with the public in a similar way to Hugh Grant of the media-reform group Hacked Off. Fleet Street lacks a champion. Last week, the newspaper industry wanted to spark debate around its own charter – which reflects the fears of many publishers that Parliament's document allows politicians opportunities to exert power over the press.

Online news reports of the industry's "rejection" of Parliament's "unworkable" charter provoked overwhelmingly hostile comments. "Who do they think they are to be above Government regulation," was a typical observation beneath the BBC's story. The public clearly does not want Mr Murdoch making the rules.

The rebellious newspapers had to rely on their own coverage of their new document. Their rejection of Parliament's charter – which David Cameron had claimed as a triumph – risks alienating even the Tories, the party most sympathetic to newspapers during post-Leveson negotiations.

Fleet Street has rarely seemed so isolated. The alternative-charter announcement coincided with Sir Martin Sorrell calling for advertisers to drastically reduce their spending on newspapers in favour of other media. And, despite falling circulations, the press is still blamed for every malady. Even Andrew Marr, a former Independent editor, claimed that the over-exercise which provoked his stroke had been the fault of a newspaper article.

The most vehement newspaper critics like to say the press is a defunct medium, soon to be replaced by a democracy of blogs and social media commentary. This is clearly nonsense – as shown by last week's figures showing that newspaper websites are visited by some 20 million people every day. News publishers are at the forefront of digital innovation in Britain.

And yet when it comes to the debate about its own future, a supposedly too-powerful communications sector is struggling to find a collective voice or make itself heard. Having News International's senior executives as its main cheerleaders is unlikely to help with that.

A fashion course that's in Vogue

Condé Nast's extension of its magazine brands continues this week, with the launch of the Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design in Soho, London.

Although the college carries the publisher's name rather than any of its titles, it will be teaching the year-long Vogue Fashion Foundation Diploma and offering the Vogue Fashion Certificate for those who complete a 10-week course. This is all helpful to Alexandra Shulman, editor of the fashion bible. There are already Vogue cafés in Dubai, Kiev and Moscow (a city which also hosts a GQ Bar and a Tatler Club, in honour of other Condé Nast brands).

Meanwhile fashion designer Ozwald Boateng is taking a hands-on approach to media as guest editor of New African magazine, ahead of the 50th anniversary summit of the African Union in Addis Ababa. "Europe, Asia, the Americas and Africa are like four horses pulling a carriage," he says in a stirring editorial. "Starving one horse may mean that the others are fuller but the carriage won't get anywhere fast. By letting the horse feed, heaven knows what horizons we might cross together."

Sorrell is right: Twitter is more than a tech company

In his address to the FT Digital Media Conference in London last week, Sir Martin Sorrell described Google, Facebook and Twitter as "media owners masquerading as technology companies".

It's amazing how Twitter maintains its brand reputation as a news source while being party to so many foul-ups. In the Lord McAlpine fiasco it was Twitter that got the scoop – a tweet from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – that a supposed Tory-paedophile story was breaking.

Then Twitter account holders recklessly compounded this error with outrageous speculation. Yet while the BBC and Newsnight took a deserved reputational hammering, the social media site was unaffected.

Last week Associated Press also suffered the curse of Twitter. Like the BBC after Savile, the venerable AP was already reeling from one serious blunder, as one of several American news organisations to erroneously claim that an arrest had been made in the Boston bombings investigation.

Then its Twitter account was hacked and carried a bogus report of explosions at the White House, prompting a 150 point fall on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The White House was unscathed – not so the credibility of the 167-year-old AP, which was probably more badly damaged than the "media owner" Twitter.

Twitter: @iburrell