Over the past few years I have written some harsh things about The Daily Telegraph. I don't withdraw them. It has sometimes seemed to me that so tumultuous has been the changeover of staff that the paper has lost sight of its old values.
In some respects, it has turned into a pale shadow of the Daily Mail – the newspaper which the Telegraph's owners, Sir Frederick and Sir David Barclay, esteem above all others.
But now it is clear that out of the often messy revolution at the Telegraph, something fine and noble emerged. The expenses story will be written about by historians in a hundred years. It will become part of journalistic lore. It may lead to a transformation of politics in Britain. And one has to admit the old Telegraph which I loved and admired – whether the one owned by Conrad Black or the Berrys' paper – would probably not have had anything to do with a story that has blown a hole not only in the political class but in the Tory Party itself.
You may approve of what the paper did but think it was journalistically easy. No. It was not just a matter of transcribing lots of information from a data stick or disk that had landed in their laps. Hundreds of connections had to me made. Further questions needed to be asked. The day-by-day presentation of often complicated facts was a challenge which the paper brilliantly met. It could scarcely have been better done.
The story was problematic in another sense. Now that MPs are lining up to say sorry, and the public is in full cry, it may seem that what the Telegraph did was risk-free. Why, then, did other newspapers not run the story? The Times was offered the disk. So too, on two occasions, was The Sun. (Oddly, the Daily Mail was not). The two Murdoch-owned newspapers turned it down not, I think, principally for reasons for money, but because they did not want to be accused of planting a bomb under the House of Commons.
Neither The Times nor The Sun has been in the forefront of papers decrying MPs' expenses fiddles (their sibling, The Sunday Times, has by contrast been splendid). The Times has several columnists who automatically jump to the defence of the political class, and assure us we have the most honest politicians in the world. Its initial attitude to the issue may be judged by a leader that appeared on Saturday 9 May, the day after The Telegraph fired its first fusillade. The editorial strove to see MPs' point of view. "The outrage against MPs is not merely pious, it is also dangerous."
In the first days of The Telegraph's coverage, before the extent of public outrage was clear, the BBC also did not embrace the full force of the story. There was an underlying suggestion that the paper had gone too far. On the morning of Sunday 10 May, I heard the joyous assertion on a Radio 4 news bulletin that The Sunday Telegraph had been forced to eat "humble pie". Of course, like some newspapers, the BBC has tended in the past to perpetuate the now palpably indefensible proposition that our political class is essentially honest.
So The Daily Telegraph required some courage to do what it did. It understood that it would run into opposition. (In the first few days, more than one MP spoke of legal action. I'd be surprised if such threats ever materialise). The paper knew that by upsetting the Tories, whose in-house journal it used to be, as well as its more recently acquired friends in the Labour Party, it would sour relations with politicians for months to come. Yet still it went ahead.
Naturally I don't pretend that The Telegraph's conduct was perfect. As it was obviously in the public interest for the paper to pay for the information – it could not have been obtained in any other way – its refusal to concede that it did so seems a bit coy, and one cannot easily see how an admission would have jeopardised its source. I don't agree with those who say that it spared David Cameron, but it did exempt its own columnist Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, from any coverage. This could prove embarrassing when information about expenses is officially released by the authorities in July.
But these are tiny quibbles within the big picture. Those who grumble that The Telegraph wanted to increase its sales and enhance its profile are missing the point. By that yardstick every scoop ever published could be condemned. Newspapers can defend the public interest while serving their own interests, and it would be difficult to think of a better example than this.
The Daily Telegraph has pulled off a journalistic triumph of courage and skill which will no doubt enhance the reputation of its editor, Will Lewis. It should also establish itself as a paper that is not beholden either to the Tories or to Gordon Brown. To be sure, it is different from the old Telegraph, but for the first time it is possible to say this is no longer a bad thing.
New look from Lebedev but it’s no Russian revolution
The London Evening Standard's advertisements rubbishing the paper's recent past had been withdrawn by the time of its relaunch last Monday – though not before its previous editor, Veronica Wadley, had expressed her displeasure. As almost everyone realised the idiocy of the campaign, her intervention was probably unnecessary.
So coruscating were those advertisements that I had expected a completely revamped Standard. In fact, it is rather similar to the old one. The City pages, which I have long thought excellent, seem unchanged. The centre pages have been flipped around, and there are new columnists and critics. The paper has enjoyed a slight re-design. There seem to be more stories about rich and glamorous people, but these have been growing in number since Geordie Greig took over as editor a few months ago. Was I disappointed? Slightly, perhaps. The new regime does not appear to have a revolutionary concept for the Standard, though further changes may emerge in the coming months.
My fear, though, is that the most brilliant newspaper in the world might not prosper in today's London afternoon market. I know journalists have to believe that great journalism sells, and let's hope it will. The Standard, though, is hobbled by various difficulties. Afternoon paid-for newspapers have been declining everywhere. Into this rather groggy market two freesheets have been launched, one of which (incredibly to my mind) still takes stories from the Standard.
Maybe the paper's new owners have a new distribution wheeze up their sleeves. Maybe it will grow ever more sparkling. While it is competing with two freesheets, though, it will be difficult for the Standard to gain readers. It was wrong to rubbish Ms Wadley's paper because it struggled with the same almost insuperable problems. My worries are groundless as long as its new owner Alexander Lebedev does not mind bankrolling it.