Stephen Glover: Too powerful? Far from it, the press is too weak

Media Studies: The decline of newspaper sales are much more grievous than most politicians and critics of the press appear to realise

Nearly 20 years ago a young Tory Cabinet Minister called David Mellor declared that "the press – the popular press – is drinking in the Last Chance Saloon".

Some months earlier, the Press Complaints Commission had replaced the discredited Press Council. The Calcutt Report, published in June 1990, had said the new commission would have 18 months to demonstrate "that non-statutory self-regulation could be made to work effectively. This is a stiff test for the press. If it fails, we recommend that a statutory system for handling complaints be introduced."

Twenty years later the Press Complaints Commission is generally judged to have failed because it believed assurances from News of the World executives that phone hacking was not widespread. The prospect of statutory regulation is high on the agenda again, and could be a key recommendation of the inquiry into press ethics being chaired by Lord Justice Leveson. But there are, I'm glad to say, some thoughtful editors who think self-regulation should be given another try.

One of them is Lionel Barber of The Financial Times, who, at a meeting last week organised by Thomson Reuters, and attended by a swathe of newspaper magnificos, said that those calling for tougher laws to counter irresponsible journalism such as phone hacking by the News of the World needed to take into account the financial pressures under which newspapers are operating.

This, if I may say so, is a point this column has often made. "It is an existential problem. Newspapers are dying in this country," said Mr Barber. He wants to give self-regulation one more chance. By the way, I'm sorry no tabloid editors showed up at the Thomson Reuters bash since they are in the eye of the storm.

Think what has changed in the 20 years since Calcutt. The newspaper industry, then widely profitable, is now fighting for its life. The Times, Guardian, Sunday Times, Independent and Daily Express are all making losses, in some cases to be numbered in tens of millions of pounds a year. The Daily Mirror, once a cash cow, is probably scarcely making any money at all, and The Sun is much less profitable than it once was (and selling about 55 per cent of what it did at its height).

The Daily Telegraph is earning some money (though with a circulation less than half that of 30 years ago) while the Daily Mail, although still the most profitable title, will probably make less money this year than last. Mr Barber's FT delivers reasonable profits, but not on its newsprint sales in the United Kingdom.

I know this has all been said before, including by me, but the decline of newspaper sales, and the debilitating losses incurred by some titles, are much more grievous than most politicians and critics of the press appear to realise. Imagine a kennel of noisy and supposedly aggressive Rottweilers which strike dread into the hearts of neighbours. They bark and howl night and day. Yet a visit to the kennels would establish that most of these once reputedly fearsome beasts are toothless or fat, or both.

John Kampfner, director of Index on Censorship, was absolutely right at last week's meeting when he said: "The idea that the Fourth Estate is too powerful in this country is one of the great canards of modern times."

Of course phone hacking was disgraceful, and of course all those responsible, whether at the News of the World or on other papers, should be punished. But to fixate with inquisitionary zeal on the hacking scandal is a bit like obsessing about the poor quality of the plumbing in Pompeii shortly before the entire town disappears under a mound of volcanic ash. I'm more interested – much more interested – in whether newspapers will survive.

And here a word of warning, which I touched on last week. The Metropolitan Police briefly threatened The Guardian with the Official Secrets Act. Now, admittedly not for the first time, it is using court orders to obtain footage of the recent riots from several media organisations. This suggests to me that in a changed anti-newspaper climate the police are becoming tougher with the media and, believe me, there are many other authorities which could act in the same way.

Much of our national press is already pretty feeble, and could not easily bear the kind of restrictions which would almost certainly follow statutory regulation. Lionel Barber is right. Newspapers, tabloids and broadsheets, despite their many differences, are in the end all in the same boat, and some powerful people are only too glad to see that we are so quickly shipping water.

Wasted chance to quiz Blair on Libya



On last Friday's World at One on Radio Four, Tony Blair was interviewed by Shaun Ley. As a Middle-East peace envoy, Mr Blair clearly had something to say about the Palestinian attempt to achieve statehood before talks with Israel have succeeded. He seemed to think that recognition now was not a good idea.

Mr Blair does not give interviews to the British media every day. I was therefore surprised that he was not asked about his secret visits to Col Gaddafi in Libya, disclosed by The Sunday Telegraph eight days ago, and amplified by the paper yesterday. Although they took place after Mr Blair stood down as Prime Minister, they seem pretty irregular. I appreciate the interview was on Palestine, but mightn't Mr Ley have been allowed by the BBC to slip in a question on Libya?

s.glover@independent.co.uk

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin (based in London)

£20000 - £25000 per annum + commission: SThree: Real Staffing's Pharmaceutical...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant - Immediate Start - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant - Immediate ...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders