Stephen Glover on The Press

Not all papers went absolutely mad - but most of them did
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The Independent Online

There isn't another country in the world which could have given rise to the kind of lowering row over Big Brother we endured last week. The reason is that no other country has media quite like ours.

In the first place, only America can rival us in bad taste reality TV. How shaming that Channel 4, which was set up to offer more elevated programmes than ITV, and is still supposed to be a public service broadcaster, should be trawling the gutters to find half-witted contestants for Celebrity Big Brother. I am sure such people exist in all countries; the difference is that Channel 4 finds it necessary to put them on television.

As is invariably the case when a media organisation is in a stew, Channel 4 responded like the Soviet Politburo in pre-glasnost days. Its chairman, Luke Johnson, repeatedly refused on Radio Four's Today programme to answer sensible questions, and merely parroted the refrain that people should refer to Channel 4's statement. Mr Johnson's father and brother are distinguished journalists, and one might have thought he would have cottoned on to the idea that chairmen are supposed to improve on the talking clock.

Yet for all the vulgarity of Channel 4, the story might have died had it not been for our unique national Press. In France respectable newspapers would not have registered the antics of reality TV contestants, and in America there is no national press to unleash hysteria about them. But in Britain the story was seized on by the Daily Mirror and The Sun, habitual camp-followers of Big Brother, both of which displayed a surprising degree of anti-racism. This would have been more commendable if the contestants had been racist rather than merely stupid, rude to the Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, and culturally ignorant.

We are told that the red-tops are one with Ninevah and Tyre, yet The Mirror and Sun galvanised the rest of the press, which in turn got television news in a spin. The story went nuclear. Before long, rentamob were turning out in India, burning effigies of unidentifiable bogey men (if only they had known what Luke Johnson looked like), while Messrs Brown and Blair were treating the rumpus as an affair of state.

I do not suggest that the whole thing should have been ignored, only that irony and mild mockery and a little hauteur would have constituted a more appropriate response from those of us with an IQ of above about 90. Not all newspapers went absolutely mad, but most did. The Daily Mail covered its front page with the story while telling us that it wasn't at all important. The Independent screamed "Racism" from the news-stands. Perhaps most surprising was the reaction of the Financial Times, which normally ignores silly domestic spats. It ran a front-page photograph of the Indian mob in high dudgeon, with an accompanying piece.

Perhaps you are saying to yourself that the story was important because it illustrates how unlovely these contestants are. Yes, up to a point, but they are - or were - virtually unknown. They appear to be considerably more stupid than the majority of the population. Their views are not representative. They are sad, self-promoting nobodies, though not, at least on this evidence, racist.

What I fear the whole episode shows is that the rest of us have also become half-witted. The Times, which used to report the latest Sudanese re-shuffle, carries a photograph of the (admittedly lovely) Shilpa Shetty on its front page. Gordon Brown could have dismissed the affair in four words, but found it necessary to utter many more. Statesmen and supposedly grown-up newspapers have sunk to the level of Celebrity Big Brother - as I suppose has this column by choosing to write about it.

READERS WOULD think less of me if I avoided the subject of the voluntary redundancies announced by The Independent last week. So here I am. The redundancies are unfortunate.

As circulation declines on almost all titles, and advertising shows few, if any, signs of recovery, it seems inevitable that other publishers will also announce redundancies over the next year. Among the so-called quality papers, The Times, Guardian and Independent are losing a good deal of money, and The Daily Telegraph is making less than it was.

Publishers are often cack-handed at cutting costs. Sometimes the wrong people leave, or the wrong things are cut back. The problems hard-pressed newspapers face are of a new order, and they will only survive and thrive if they take a more long-term and strategic view of sustainable costs than they have needed to do in the past.

I have a fantasy that Murdoch might buy the 'FT' ...

A couple of years ago a prominent banker told me that he was off to America to find a buyer for the Financial Times. I expressed great surprise, saying that I had not realised it was for sale. He replied that officially it was not, but he was sure it soon would be, and wanted to work up a bit of interest.

The widespread assumption that the "pink-un" will be sold by Pearson boiled over last week, and the company's shares shot up by some 5 per cent. The market evidently thinks that it would be a good idea if Pearson got rid of the FT, along with its website. The paper made £81m in 2000, since when its advertising base has contracted. After a good deal of cost-cutting it has managed to work its way back into modest profitability, making £2m in 2005, and perhaps £10m in 2006.

Who would buy it? The figure of £650m for the paper and website is being bandied about, which seems an awful lot for these returns. Still, it is a great brand, as they say, and could no doubt be made more profitable if it were run by a professional publisher.

One of my fantasies is that Rupert Murdoch might buy the FT, thereby being forced by the competition authorities to sell The Times, which might fall into more understanding hands. A more plausible suitor would be Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal. Other potential purchasers are doubtless lurking in the undergrowth.

Marjorie Scardino, the chief executive of Pearson, famously said in 2002 that the FT would be sold over her dead body. She is 60 on Thursday, and some think that she may use the occasion to announce the sale she has opposed. Although this seems rather optimistic, she surely can't dig in her heels much longer.

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