Stephen Glover on The Press

There are times when it is entirely right for proprietors to intervene
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay bought the Telegraph titles in June 2004, they announced on the front page of The Daily Telegraph that they had "no interest in interfering with the editorial policy of the titles".

This has remained their lodestar. When our sister paper suggested in July 2004 that the Barclays might have interfered with the editorial independence of their newspapers, they obtained a correction. Other papers may have been put been straight on this score. The Barclays are adamant they do not interfere.

My own response to such a proposition advanced by any proprietor would be one of wonderment. So far as I am concerned, proprietors must interfere from time to time. It is their duty to do so. For a newspaper owner to say that he will not interfere is, in my view, tantamount to a fishmonger declaring that he will not sell saltwater fish. Interfering should go with the job.

The problem may be one of terms. One definition of "interfere" is to meddle or to obstruct a process without right. I am sure that by this definition the Barclays are never guilty of interference. If we take a broader meaning, so that we are talking about an entirely legitimate and proper form of occasional intervention – well, that, as I say, is what proprietors should do.

This matter has landed in my court as a result of a column I wrote four weeks ago about Stephen Robinson's new biography of Lord Deedes. The book relates how in his dying days Bill Deedes described the Barclays, or more precisely their regime, as "a stinking mob" – not a view I share. I recounted how The Daily Telegraph had spiked a review of the book (it was subsequently published) and how Matthew d'Ancona, editor of the Barclay-owned Spectator, had changed a review by Sir Peregrine Worsthorne so that "a stinking mob" was made to refer to Bill's colleagues.

What I had hoped would be regarded as a fair-minded and constructive piece in fact drew forth an angry letter from the Barclays' solicitors, Withers. In the course of my column I had surmised that the Barclays had been "building up a head of steam on their island fortress of Brechou". This was interpreted as my suggesting that the Barclays had instructed Telegraph executives and Mr D'Ancona to act as they did. Nothing could have been further from my intentions. I do not for a moment imagine, nor did I when I wrote the piece, that the Barclays had in any way caused these things to happen. Sir David has made this clear elsewhere: "Nothing could be further from the truth; it did not happen as a result of any interference from any member of the Barclay family."

No, Mr D'Ancona acted entirely on his own initiative. That makes his action in changing Sir Peregrine's review all the more indefensible. As for the Barclays, their behaviour in this instance was practically saintly. After all, their own title, The Daily Telegraph, had chosen to publish excerpts from a book that had described their regime as "a stinking mob". If I owned a newspaper, I am not sure I would be so accommodating.

Let us return to the issue of interference versus intervention. In my view, the Barclays do sometimes intervene in their newspapers – in the perfectly proper and non-pejorative sense I have already outlined – and they can be completely relaxed about this. Certainly they appear not to have objected to a recent suggestion in print that Sir David "occasionally interven[ed] in editorial matters".

Moreover, last November, Dominic Lawson, a former editor of The Sunday Telegraph, told the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications that when he was editor he was once telephoned by Aidan Barclay (chairman of the Telegraph Media Group, and son of Sir David) and asked not to run a story about David Blunkett and the paternity of various children he may or may not have fathered. Mr Lawson persuaded Mr Barclay that the story should be published. The episode, as related in Mr Lawson's evidence, redounds to Mr Barclay's credit. He was discharging his family's proprietorial duties by checking that a potentially incendiary story about a senior minister was well-founded. He could not have done this without some form of intervention.

As it happens, the contents of a letter came my way that would appear to provide another example of such legitimate editorial intervention. Oddly, it concerns me. The letter was written by Boris Johnson, then editor of The Spectator, to Sir David Barclay on 13 September 2004. Evidently Sir David had complained in correspondence about something which I – then a Spectator columnist – had written about its sister publication, The Daily Telegraph. Having asserted that he would normally back me to the hilt, Mr Johnson concludes: "My strong advice to you (which I am sure you do not need) is simply to ignore his comments in the knowledge that I will ensure that nothing of the kind is repeated."

No one would suggest that the Barclays would ever interfere in their titles, so as to advance their individual interests or to suppress information that might be damaging to them personally or to their associates. But as guardians of venerable publications they have a right and a duty to intervene by applying a gentle guiding hand from time to time – and it is cheering to see them do so.

A grass is not necessarily a snake

For months newspapers and the police have been urging people to come forward to provide evidence in the murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones, the Liverpool schoolboy. Last week someone did so, naming a 17- year-old who was already a police suspect.

The Sun reported this in a very strange way, writing on its front page that 'a pal of the prime suspect in murder of schoolboy Rhys Jones has turned supergrass.' Turned supergrass? This seems a curiously pejorative way of describing someone who is presumably still a minor, and has been persuaded by police to testify against his friend. The word 'supergrass' conveys a hardened type who has probably been in and out of jail, and decides to blow the gaffe on his old criminal mates. Surely not the mot juste in this instance.

We wish them all the best

For some reason I did not receive an invitation to the marriage two days ago of Murdoch MacLennan, chief executive of the Telegraph Group, to Elsa McAlonan, a beauty expert and journalist. A jet was chartered to whisk the luminaries to the festivities north of the border. Among those on the guest list were: Gordon Brown; Lord Rothermere; Paul Dacre; Guy Black, Mr MacLennan's spin doctor; and his partner, PR guru Mark Bolland. Fleet Street has seen nothing like it these 20 years.

scmgox@aol.com

Comments