Stephen Glover on the Press

Just Boris: London's mayor is like a hungry boy in the tuck shop
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The Independent Online

Silly me. A few months ago I suggested that part of Boris Johnson might welcome defeat in the London mayoral election since it would enable him to resume his 250,000 a year column on The Daily Telegraph. It did not occur to me that he would take it up again if he won.

There is, after all, a convention in this country that politicians in office do not write regular newspaper columns, it being thought desirable that the executive should be kept separate from the fourth estate. I can think of one or two exceptions Ken Livingstone did a weekly piece for this newspaper for about a year after becoming Mayor but they are very rare. Plenty of politicians, such as Churchill, have written newspaper columns when out of power, but they normally down tools once they achieve office.

I exclude those statesmen who have used compliant journalists as their mouthpieces: Lord Salisbury and the leader writer Alfred Austin spring to mind, and don't forget the one or two obliging creatures who took dictation from Tony Blair. Prime Ministers and Cabinet ministers are also encouraged by newspapers to write articles, in which case they usually engage an aide to do it for them. But occasional propaganda pieces of that sort can scarcely be compared to the kind of weekly column the new Mayor will be doing.

My mistake was to forget that Boris wants everything and I mean everything. He is like a little boy with his nose pressed to the window of a tuck shop who, when asked by a tender parent whether he would like a chocolate bar, replies that he certainly would, along with a bag of toffees, some fudge and a box of marshmallows too. While he was editor of The Spectator he told its proprietor, Conrad Black, that he would stand down in the event of winning the Henley constituency, but in the event forgot his undertaking.

Do not think me censorious. Boris has quite expensive tastes, and four children to educate, and it would be a lot to ask him to grind along on a mayoral salary of nearly 140,000 a year, even though his wife brings home a fair amount of bacon as a divorce lawyer. He wants the money and, Boris being Boris, disregards convention. A crucial point about him David Cameron please note is that he changes the rules as he goes along. The world must be reordered to suit Boris.

One has to wonder, of course, what sort of columns he will produce if his political enemies are poring over them. During the mayoral campaign, Ken's assiduous readers filleted everything Boris had written. They certainly came up with some colourful corkers to embarrass him. Boris will have to be on his best behaviour and, brilliant columnist though he is, there must be a danger that his dispatches from City Hall will read much like the official newsletter of a Soviet tractor factory, boasting about meeting increased production targets. Speaking of which, Boris has cleverly closed down the propaganda paper set up by Ken, and is supposedly spending the money he saves on planting more trees. What need does he have of The Londoner when he has his own column in The Daily Telegraph, and the services of the Evening Standard? The other day I came across a page devoted to him in that paper, and had the sense one gets on arriving in a one-party state in Africa and reading about the heroic exploits of the president in the local rag. The Mayor had set up this. The Mayor had achieved that. There was even a picture of Boris striding purposely towards his next triumph.

He has adroitly announced that he is giving 25,000 out of his reported 250,000 Telegraph salary to a 'Boris bursary' for student journalists, and a further 25,000 towards the teaching of classics at state schools in the capital. Of course, we shouldn't assume he is being paid a mere 250,000 by The Telegraph, which is what he got previously. I certainly wouldn't put it past him to have negotiated an increase. Let there be more trees and more Latin and more student journalism, but we may be confident that Boris will go on getting what he wants.

When newspapers are best kept in the family

Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, addressed staff last week at Sadler's Wells in London. Despite his fears about the future of print, Mr Rusbridger was upbeat. Much of what he said concerned the 24-hour integrated news operation involving The Guardian and The Observer, embracing both print and on-line.

If he had betrayed any anxiety, it was not so much on behalf of his own newspapers as his family-controlled competitors. Mr Rusbridger pointed out that Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay brothers (owners of the Telegraph Media Group) and Sir Anthony O'Reilly, whose family controls this newspaper, are all in their 70s. While the Scott Trust, which owns The Guardian and Observer, stretches confidently into the future, Mr Rusbridger is not so sanguine that the offspring of these ageing proprietors will be up to the job.

One could doubtless make differing judgments in each case. Will Murdoch's successors be able to hold his vast empire together? If one looks back over the last century at family-owned newspapers, they have prospered when the handover from one generation to another has gone smoothly, and stumbled when it has not. Sometimes, the next generation is more successful than its predecessor. Vere Rothermere revived the Daily Mail which his father, Esmond, almost sold.

If the handover between generations works there is a great deal to be said for family-owned newspaper groups. They are more far-sighted than media groups controlled by ordinary shareholders: the one can look into the future, while the other is preoccupied with today's bottom line. Successful family-controlled newspapers are better at taking risks, and are more likely to stick longer with a loss-making title in the hope of turning it around. That admittedly can irritate minority shareholders.

Nor are trusts fool proof. No one can doubt that Mr Rusbridger is a formidable operator, but who else in the Scott Trust has any sense of vision, and who is there to rein him in? A great deal is being staked on his ambitious plans. If they should fail, neither he nor his descendants will be around to pick up the pieces. Give me family owned newspapers any day when they work.

scmgox@aol.com

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