Stephen Glover: Why all newspapers need faithful and benevolent guardians
Monday 02 February 2009
From the moment of its birth, people have been trying to kill off The Independent. On the day before its launch, Max Hastings, then editor of The Daily Telegraph, sent a bottle of champagne to our offices in City Road, wishing us luck and promising to "bury" us. The following day he dispatched a wreath, complete with a trailing black ribbon.
As it started, so it has gone on. Over the years I have lost count of the number of times rivals and pundits have informed readers that The Independent was on its last legs. It is curious how some journalists, who should in theory be in favour of increasing the number of titles, often seem eager to close them. Perhaps they find The Independent especially annoying, though it is hard to understand why they should.
For once, though, there seems to be some basis for speculating that the paper might be sold, although suggestions that it may be closed are surely wide of the mark. Last Tuesday The Times ran a piece under the headline: "O'Reilly open to offers for The Independent newspaper". The story claimed that Sir Anthony O'Reilly, the controlling shareholder of the Irish-based Independent News and Media (INM), which owns this newspaper and its Sunday sister, was effectively putting them up for sale.
By way of substantiation, The Times quoted "a source close to Independent News and Media" as saying: "Does Sir Anthony want to sell The Independent? No. Is it formally for sale? No. But is it fair to say that he is open to discussions with potential buyers? Yes he is." Of course, we do not know who this source is. It could be a PR person or a senior journalist or a canteen lady who knows about as much of what is going on in Sir Anthony's mind as I do. To hang such an important story on one unidentified individual is rather unsatisfactory.
Nonetheless, we should take it seriously. Like all newspaper publishing groups, INM has taken a battering in recent months, and its share price has been travelling south. A debt repayment looms, and the company has tried unsuccessfully to sell valuable assets in Australia and New Zealand. In such a climate Sir Anthony would be failing in his duty if he had not weighed up the pros and cons of offloading the Independent titles, which are thought to lose some £10m a year. He also has a rival Irish tycoon called Denis O'Brien breathing down his neck. Mr O'Brien, who has acquired about a quarter of INM's shares, has strongly argued that the company should find a buyer for The Independent and its Sunday sister.
It goes without saying that I hope that Sir Anthony does not get rid of the titles, whose faithful and benevolent guardian he has been as its sole owner for the past 11 years. But times are very, very tough for newspapers. If Lord Rothermere is forced to flog the London Evening Standard, which he and his father had particularly cherished, it is not unimaginable that Sir Anthony will also have to steel his heart. It is all very well my sitting in my study in north Oxford exhorting him not to, and asserting that, despite present difficulties, newspapers have a bright future. Hard choices may have to be faced now.
If the titles were sold, who might buy them? Even in the present economic climate there is probably a long list of candidates, no doubt many of them unsuitable. My dear and esteemed colleague Professor Roy Campbell-Greenslade, who has been mentally trying to sell off The Independent for as long as I can remember, has touted the charms of a Mexican multibillionaire called Carlos Slim, an investor in The New York Times who also owns 1 per cent of INM. Perhaps Roy knows a great deal about Mr Slim – perhaps, indeed, he is already intimate with him – but I fear I cannot help here.
Another perhaps more plausible – and certainly much spoken of – candidate is the Russian oligarch and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev, who has just acquired 75.1 per cent of the Evening Standard. As that paper loses more than £10m a year, he might be chary about taking on extra responsibilities, the more so, as he admitted in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph eight days ago, because his own wealth has been clipped by the credit crunch. Even if he were gung-ho about acquiring another newspaper, the rest of us should be cautious. Let's see how this former KGB man (who some suggest is not unfriendly to the Kremlin) fares with the Evening Standard before entrusting him with more precious jewels.
So I don't know. I only hope that a new owner of this newspaper, if there is one, understands its origins and purposes, and does not fall under the charms of a snake-oil salesman who simply wants to make money out of the arrangement and does not care for The Independent at all. In that case Max Hastings' unfortunate wish might finally come true. I'm sure there is a good would-be proprietor out there, but the difficulty lies in finding him. How much better it would be to stay with the one the paper has got.
Closed doors should be opened with great care...
Last week, the oddly named Information Tribunal decreed that the Government should release the minutes of two crucial Cabinet meetings on 13 and 17 March 2003 at which the invasion of Iraq was discussed. This decision upheld a ruling by the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, under the Freedom of Information Act. The Government was given 28 days to respond.
Believing as I do that we were misled into the Iraq war, I should be delighted with this decision. The journalist in me certainly is. Yet I wonder whether ministers will speak frankly if they fear that their remarks will be public knowledge within a few years while they are still in office. The danger is that they will only say what they really think in private huddles that go unrecorded.
This is what happened under Tony Blair with his "sofa government". Minutes were not taken while important decisions were made. According to Clare Short, who resigned over Britain's involvement in Iraq, we are likely to be disappointed by the minutes of the two meetings in March 2003. She says there was "very limited proper discussion in Cabinet".
An independent report released last week, chaired by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, could lead to greater transparency. On the one hand, it recommended that the "30-year rule" under which records of Cabinet meetings and official memos are released to the public should be reduced to 15 years. It also suggests that the civil service code be amended to help ensure that civil servants keep full and accurate records.
If this really happened – and if ministers could be confident that their Cabinet deliberations wouldn't end up in colleagues' instant memoirs – we might get a fuller and more honest account of the workings of government after 15 years than we do at the moment after 30.
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