Stephen Glover on the press

This online revolution could finally give journalism its place in history
Click to follow
The Independent Online

One of the mysteries of life is that journalists generally think themselves much more important than historians later judge them to have been. At any time there are proprietors and editors who believe they wield enormous power. Yet when historians look back, they often portray these once preening editors and proprietors as marginal figures – if they are portrayed at all.

Why should this be? One possible explanation is that for reasons of vanity politicians never admit in their memoirs that they went to great lengths to cultivate these titans, and that they took their views seriously. When Stewart Steven was at the London Evening Standard he was almost John Major's only friend among editors. Many a time he would pop along to Number 10 to pat the Prime Minister's trembling hand, and listen to his woes. And yet when Sir John came to write his autobiography he did not mention Stewart at all.

A future historian may reasonably – but wrongly – conclude that Stewart played no part in Sir John's counsels. Similarly, I will wager that when Gordon Brown comes to write his memoirs he will give short shrift to those proprietors and editors whose good opinion he now seeks so eagerly over breakfast or dinner. His vanity will be such that he will not wish to represent himself as the supplicant he sometimes is. Editors who not unreasonably believe that they have played a significant part in his career will find they have been forgotten.

There is another reason why historians find it so difficult to get a handle on the nature of the relations between editors and leading politicians. Old newspapers are difficult to get to grips with. Most are not on microfilm, which is anyway laborious and fiddly. If a historian wanted to write a comprehensive account of the relations between the Press and, say, Lloyd-George, he would have to wade through many thousands of newspapers and read millions of words – an almost impossible task. It is one thing to check a fact in an old newspaper or read up an episode whose date you know; quite another to gain a complete sense of what was written about someone over a period of years in a whole range of newspapers.

That is why the news that The Economist will soon put its entire archive online from 1843 to 2003 is so sensational. The Guardian is creating an archive from its founding in 1821 until 1975, while its sister paper, The Observer, will cover the years from 1900 to 1975. The Times, as a paper of record, will surely have to follow suit. Before long we may be able to peer into our lap-tops and read the dispatches of William Howard Russell from the Crimea, not selected and edited by a historian, but in their original context as they were written.

This is an amazing revolution. No longer, perhaps, will we have to trudge up to the newspaper library in Colindale or, in my case, to the Bodleian in Oxford, where I was once told that some old newspapers were unfortunately unavailable because no one could fight his way through the stacks of other papers to retrieve them. What was lost or forgotten or at the very least difficult to recover will be instantaneously available not only to historians and journalists but also to the ordinary reader

There are admittedly pitfalls. John Micklethwait, editor of The Economist, says that his magazine's archive will provide a record of "the past 160 years through unbiased, probing eyes." Probing maybe, but not unbiased, even in The Economist. In an essay called "The eye-witness fallacy," Malcolm Muggeridge once described the propensity of some foreign-based reporters, either through design or ignorance, to get things wrong. He cites Walter Duranty of The New York Times who drew a near idyllic picture of Soviet Russia during the Soviet famines in the early 1930s. In some hands journalism is not so much the first rough draft of history as a complete bog-up, and we should regard a hundred year-old newspaper with the same scepticism as we did yesterday's.

But what a resource will be open to us! My only gripe is that The Economist is planning to charge subscribers, and that, at least to begin with, its historical database will only be available to institutions. The Guardian and The Observer intend to charge £7.95 for 24 hours' access, or £49.95 for a month. Surely these high-minded (and, in the case of The Economist, immensely rich) organs should be offering their archives as close to free as is possible.

Journalism, whose works have gathered dust in barely visited vaults, may for the first time assume its proper place in political history, though politicians will doubtless continue to forget their former helpmates. Whether this new resource will make any difference to the way journalists see themselves and their trade is another matter. I suspect most of us will still proceed as though what we write will end up lining someone's budgerigar cage next week, even though our words will, in fact, form part of a vast database stretching back (though not in the case of The Independent) a hundred years, and forward almost into infinity.

Lonely fight for 'Sun' on referendum

Despite the best efforts of The Sun, the issue of the European referendum will not catch fire. My impression is that most people think that there should be a referendum, but are not very worked up about it. The Daily Mail has still not unleashed its dogs of war, and on the eve of last week's summit The Daily Telegraph ran a front-page editorial that was hardly full of fire and brimstone.

And yet last Friday's Sun carried a veiled threat to Mr Brown in a full-length editorial, accusing him of having taken "the fatal step of breaking his word to Sun readers". That word "fatal" sounds rather ominous for the Prime Minister, as does the paper's pledge to " keep fighting for that promised referendum right up to and into the general election". In winning his battle has Mr Brown lost The Sun?

Rupert's plan may help 'FT'

When Rupert Murdoch (below) acquired The Wall Street Journal some commentators warned The Financial Times to watch out, so formidable a publisher is he supposed to be. Last week Mr Murdoch said something that will have lifted hearts at the FT. He wants to broaden the scope of the financially orientated Journal, and compete with The New York Times. Surely it is a cardinal rule of publishing that you do not unsettle your core readers. If he does, the FT will be waiting to scoop them up.