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Ian Burrell: ‘For the sake of British newspapers, editors must step into the limelight’

Media Studies: It takes an unusual person to become a national newspaper editor. Most are confident, personable and exceptionally well-informed about contemporary life.

For all the obsession most of them have with the minutiae of the lives of the powerful and famous, the editors of Britain’s national newspapers have never been very good at presenting their own human side.

Even in 2013, three years after Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg decreed that privacy should no longer be considered a “social norm,” almost all of Fleet Street’s editors could walk the aisles of Sainsbury’s with little expectation of being recognised.

They would deny that this is a result of the decline in status of the papers they edit. Many of them would argue – as an extraordinary new advertising campaign does on their behalf – that they preside over multi-platform products that are fully in tune with the digital lives of the modern consumer.

The campaign is called “Papers Aren’t Just Papers Anymore” and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. For a start it features the mastheads of all the usually fiercely competitive national titles, cheek-by-jowl. In one treatment, the names are arranged in the form of three Ws, to reflect the transition these organisations have made to the World Wide Web. It’s all very cosy – if only the press could be as unified and forward-thinking in addressing the critical issue of future regulation.

The multimedia message is fully justified by the vast monthly traffic to the sites of British papers (the Daily Mail has 138 million, The Guardian 84 million, The Telegraph 60 million, The Mirror 34 million and The Independent 28 million). But in an era when it has become customary to project oneself online, expressing opinions and uploading videos and photographs, the newspaper editors are mostly as faceless as their predecessors in the days of hot metal.

While they clearly understand the power of visual media and encourage their staff to exploit the immediacy of Twitter, the editors are rarely seen on camera and are, for the most part, modest users of the micro-blogging site.

The Sun editor David Dinsmore (@davedins, 1,899 followers) and The Mirror’s Lloyd Embley (@LWEmbley66, 2,041 followers) are almost anonymous considering the enormous influence they have. Neither Hugh Whittow, editor of the Express, nor Dawn Neesom, editor of sister title The Daily Star, use Twitter and it is almost unimaginable that Geordie Greig of The Mail on Sunday – let alone the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre – might start tweeting.

More significantly, most of the editors shun television. Not surprising, you might say, given the inept performances – from sheepish to downright aggressive – many of them gave on camera at the Leveson Inquiry. But that process was an inquisition, watched by a niche audience of phone-hacking obsessives. Rather than raising their public profiles, most editors wanted to get away from the microphone as quickly as possible.

And so these (mostly) men who shape the news allow the myth to persist that they are shadowy, unaccountable and invisible. For those who wish to characterise the press as being untrustworthy, out of touch and irrelevant, this is most helpful. 

It takes an unusual person to become a national newspaper editor. Most are confident, personable and exceptionally well-informed about contemporary life.

How many people would have thought, when Piers Morgan was editing the Daily Mirror, that he would succeed Larry King as the chat show host at CNN? The bookish Ian Hislop hated his first television experience but has become an accomplished performer on camera and an ambassador for Private Eye.

I don’t suggest that all editors should become television personalities. But many of them would benefit from revealing a little more of themselves to the public.

Evidence of this is provided by John Lloyd, the brilliant television producer and creator of Not The Nine O’Clock News, QI and now the “Papers Aren’t Just Papers Anymore” campaign (for news industry body Newsworks). For Lloyd, the process has been a revelation. He began it as a subscriber to the “common wisdom that newspapers are dying” and that he could “get everything from Google News”. And then he went on a tour of Fleet Street.

Gordon Smart, editor of The Sun’s showbiz column Bizarre, was “well-read, with a great personality”, Embley at the Daily Mirror was “an incredibly likeable guy and so proud of the campaigns the Daily Mirror runs” and John Witherow, editor of The Times, who he had suspected might be “Rupert’s lapdog” turned out to be “thoughtful, a bloke who oozes integrity”.

He spoke to The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger about the value of his training as a young reporter in Cambridge, and he learned that Chris Blackhurst, group content editor at The Independent, i and London Evening Standard, had gone into newspapers after watching the Watergate film All the President’s Men and wanting “to change the world and right wrongs”.

This is not the view of the press that you see reflected in public polls. Rather than a dying print industry, Lloyd discovered that The Daily Telegraph is making 40 videos a day, that The Independent, i and Evening Standard are launching a London television channel and that the Daily Mail and Guardian are leading the online charge in exporting British journalism overseas.

“I’ve gone through a complete sea change,” said Lloyd. “I came away struck by the realisation that the idea that the average journalist is a phone-hacking slob is just ridiculous.”

When Lloyd (a former advertising executive) came to make the campaign – along with modern design agency Tappin Gofton, who previously worked for the Chemical Brothers and Coldplay – he decided on a bold message. “I said, let’s trumpet this extraordinary institution of the British national press. They’re the best in the world, there’s no getting away from it.”

On Wednesday of next week, the Privy Council meets to consider the newspaper industry’s Royal Charter on press regulation. Reformers are confident that it will be thrown out, and an earlier and more stringent Royal Charter, approved by MPs in March, will go forward. We shall see.

Either way, ahead of the inevitable shame that will come with the forthcoming criminal trials over alleged phone-hacking and bribery, the national press would benefit if its editors stepped more into the light.

The future of investigative journalism

Andrew Gilligan is best known these days as the cycling commissioner for Boris Johnson but The Daily Telegraph writer is on a prestigious panel for an event which asks the worrying question: “Can investigative journalism survive?”

Alongside him are author Tom Bower, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (Britain’s highest-profile editor at the moment, partly thanks to Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of him in the forthcoming Wikileaks film The Fifth Estate), Heather Brooke, the freelance who landed the MPs’ expenses scandal story, which was then brilliantly reported by The Daily Telegraph, and Tom Harper, investigations reporter at The Independent.

The London Press Club event will be chaired by BBC presenter Andrew Neil. It takes place on 22 October, almost a decade to the day after the end of the Hutton inquiry – the hearing which was prompted by Gilligan’s Today programme claim of a “sexed up” weapons dossier and provoked a New Labour backlash that brought the roof in on the BBC.

Twitter: @iburrell