The national media have at last woken up to the charges of corruption and cronyism against the administration of Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London. Were it not for the London Evening Standard, there would almost certainly be no stories in the national press about Ken and his cronies, and this disagreeable man would be a shoo-in to be re-elected in 12 weeks' time.
Of course, in writing about Mr Livingstone the Standard is only doing its job as London's paid-for title. But do not imagine it is kids' play taking him on. He and his sidekicks have accused the paper of racism – Lee Jasper, Mr Livingstone's senior race adviser, and the man at the heart of the storm, is black – and questioned the credentials of Andrew Gilligan, their main critic on the paper. A hero to me, Mr Gilligan remains controversial as a result of his suggestion that the Government knew Saddam Hussein did not have WMD.
Perhaps I should declare an interest, since I write a column for the Daily Mail, the Evening Standard's sister paper. I think I can say, though, that I have quite often criticised the Standard over recent years, and seldom said anything nice about it. I offer myself as a late, though still not complete, convert to its virtues.
What is extraordinary is that it should have improved despite successive cutbacks, and despite being involved in a war with two London freesheets, one of which is published by the Standard's owner, Associated Newspapers.
Economies were forced on the paper as a result of a contracting classified advertising market and declining circulation. Writers such as AN Wilson, who had adorned the paper for many years, were let go because it could no longer afford them. Then came the launch of the two giveaways, its own sibling London Lite and the Murdoch-owned The London Paper, both of which have made considerable inroads into the Standard's circulation. London Lite even uses some of the Standard's stories, which has hardly made life easier for its editor, Veronica Wadley.
Nevertheless, the newspaper has fought back. It has had another re-design, and the presentation of stories has improved. Its re-branding of itself as "London's quality newspaper" was perhaps pushing things somewhat, but it has edged upmarket – and away from the freesheets. The City pages, already good, have been strengthened. There are several readable columnists – though the paper could probably do with one or two more heavyweight ones – and Londoner's Diary, the famous gossip column, remains lively. Above all, perhaps, the paper has acquired more energy – witness its campaign to clean up City Hall.
My God, am I sounding too enthusiastic? Admittedly the heavily loss-making paper remains a serious commercial problem for Associated Newspapers, and it is difficult to see how it can ever prosper financially as long as there are two freesheets. (One solution to this, of course, is to merge the freesheets.) I expect the Standard could make further economies. The important point, though, is that it is worth fighting for, and saving. London would be much poorer without it.
And here is a further thought: with much grit and determination, it is possible to produce a better newspaper with less money.
There are few secrets in newspapers
Tristan Davies, who recently stepped down as editor of The Independent on Sunday, has just been appointed executive editor of the Sunday Times. This set me thinking.
In the world of investment banking and City law firms, it would be inconceivable to leave one job and take a similar one with a rival organisation within weeks. You would have to go on "gardening leave", or live under house arrest for six months.
In newspapers, however, it is still possible to walk across the street – thank God. A bore might say that Tristan knows where all the dials and switches are at the Sindy, and might sing like a hyena. So what if he does? Perhaps the distinction is that there are few real secrets in newspapers since every time they publish they reveal everything about themselves.
Or maybe journalists just take themselves less seriously than bankers and lawyers.
'Sun' alone in defence of League
Isn't it odd how newspapers take such violently opposed views on the same subject? I'm not referring to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was universally walloped last Friday as a result of his advocacy of sharia law, but to the reaction on the same day to the Premier League's plans to play 10 games a season abroad.
Most newspapers took a very dim view. The Daily Mirror accused "greedy Premier League bosses" of "a £100m sell-out". The Daily Express suggested that "football has finally sold its soul". The Daily Mail wrote in similar terms. Nor were the so-called quality papers impressed.
There was, however, one discordant voice – The Sun. "Amazing plan to send our league around the globe" ran a line on the front. "Premier League football is set to conquer the world," enthused the paper's inside story. It was "a sensational move". To be fair, Steve Bruce, manager of Wigan, was given 150 words to say why he thinks it is a bad idea.
Why was The Sun alone in its enthusiasm? The Premier League has become fabulously wealthy, and its footballers multi-millionaires, largely as a result of the televising of matches by BSkyB, which is controlled by Rupert Murdoch. The Sun's proprietor is the same Mr Murdoch, who recently generously handed over the keys to his son, James. To its credit, the Murdoch-owned Times was much less gung-ho than The Sun.
Over the years BSkyB's lock on the Premier League may have diminished slightly, but it would doubtless bid for the rights to televise these extra matches. Rebekah Wade, The Sun's editor, recently suggested that Mr Murdoch never interferes. It is reassuring to see her putting his interests before those of her readers, who will hardly be eager to travel to Tokyo or Rome to watch their teams.Reuse content