A story in The Observer about The Independent has put the cat among the pigeons. Eight days ago, the paper suggested that Daily Mail and General Trust, publisher of The Daily Mail, is considering a bid for this newspaper and its Sunday sister. My impression, from talking to journalists and politicians, is that the story is quite widely believed by the population of medialand.
The managements of both companies have denied that a deal is on the cards. That, I am afraid, is not an absolute guarantee that it isn’t, since when their own businesses are involved newspapers are just as capable of being economical with the truth as any other company.
Let me nonetheless put such credibility as I have on the line by saying that if the DMGT buys the Independent titles I will eat a copy of The Daily Mail and a copy of The Independent in front of witnesses, my only proviso being that I should be permitted to choose any proprietary sauce or garnish I want in order to make the dish more digestible.
How can I be so confident that I am not putting my digestive tracts in peril? It is no secret that The Independent is losing quite a lot of money.
So too are The Observer, The Guardian, The Times and, crucially so far as the matter in hand is concerned, the London Evening Standard. Who owns this last title? Why, DMGT.
Only recently there was a further round editorial redundancies at the paper, and I fear there will be more. It is being cruelly squeezed between the two loss making afternoon freesheets, the London Paper, owned by Rupert Murdoch, and London Lite, also owned by DMGT.
With serious problems at the Standard the last thing in the world that DMGT needs is a title with not dissimilar difficulties. It is also facing sharply declining profits in its regional division, Northcliffe, where advertising revenues are falling off a cliff. Remember that DMGT is a quoted company, albeit one controlled by Lord Rothermere. The stock market hates newspapers at the moment, particularly loss-making ones. DMGT’s attraction to investors is that the Mail titles remain strongly profitable and it has extensive, robust non-newspaper interests, but its share price, already under some pressure, would take a nosedive if it acquired another unprofitable newspaper.
That is not to say that some sort of link up between DMGT and the Independent titles may not have been discussed that envisages the possible sharing of “back office” operations such as advertising or distribution. In the present grisly economic climate the Independent’s management would be failing in its duty if it were not looking around for new ways of saving money. But such an arrangement, even if it came off, would be very far indeed from the possible takeover mentioned by The Observer. We can all get things wrong. The technical term for a story of this sort is “a flier”.
However, none of this means that the Independent papers could never be sold. Last April, I wrote in this column about the attempts of the Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien to wrest control of Independent News and Media (INM), which owns The Independent and its Sunday sister, from Sir Anthony O’Reilly. Mr O’Brien is in favour of selling the Independent titles. My piece was unashamedly partisan, since no one who loves this newspaper could deny that Sir Anthony has been a good friend to it.
Since I wrote that article, Mr O’Brien has increased his shareholding in INM to 26 per cent, and the economy has turned very black indeed. Much as he loves the Independent, and despite his support for it over the years, Sir Anthony would not be human if he had not at some time over the past few months considered selling it. A sale would remove the cornerstone of Mr O’Brien’s case against him at a stroke, besides providing some welcome relief for INM’s bottom line.
My hope is still that Sir Anthony will find some way of hanging on to The Independent while seeing off Mr O’Brien, or coming to some accommodation with him. If this is not possible, and the titles have to be sold, my hope then would be that a plausible and respectable purchaser could be found. Whatever happens, though, that won’t be the Daily Mail and General Trust.
BBC botches its Obama coverage even with 125 extra journalists
Who starred and who flopped in the coverage of Barack Obama’s historic election victory?
The weakest performer by far, for my money, was the BBC, despite having 175 journalists in the United States. Even with the normally authoritative David Dimbleby as its anchorman in Washington, the Beeb’s coverage seemed strangely listless, while its studio discussions, made up of pundits whose services were presumably not required by the American networks, were often rambling and inconsequential.
Was it really worth sending 125 people across the Atlantic to join the 50 BBC journalists normally based in the US? The trouble is that many of us now have access to the American networks, which have even greater resources than the BBC and can call on more heavyweight pundits. Some of the BBC’s reporters out in the sticks seemed at sea in comparison with the US network journalists, who are after all American and usually more clued up about their own country.
But I thought the BBC also suffered in comparison with Sky, which had sent a fraction of the journalists to America but was much better on the human drama. Jon Snow of Channel 4 News also deserves a mention for his energy and apparently sophisticated understanding of American politics.
In the age of 24-hour rolling news and the internet, newspapers obviously had a particular problem, since most of their readers already knew the outline of the story. Nonetheless, some titles produced very late editions with the news of Mr Obama’s victory for their central London readers. Among the clutch of newspapers I bought at South Kensington on Wednesday morning, The Guardian (boasting “3am news”) and The Independent (“Special 4am edition”) were ahead of the pack. Though they should get full marks for being so fleet of foot, one wonders whether being on the button for a relatively few readers in London is so important these days.
On Thursday morning the newspapers came into their own, offering graphics, charts, analysis and commentary on a scale that television cannot aspire to, and, for this reader at least, in a form that made it easier to absorb than it is on the internet. Even the tabloids pushed the boat out, with the Daily Express seeming less moved than most, though it carried a fascinating piece by Joanna Walters in Chicago about Mr Obama’s security problems. The Mail and the “heavies” produced screeds of copy covering every angle you could think of, and it would take a couple of decades to judge between them. Who says newspapers are finished?