Rob Brown's Media Column

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Why doesn't The Independent stop bleating about predatory pricing by rival broadsheets and just slash its own cover price to compete? Our readership would instantly balloon and advertising would flood into our Canary Wharf headquarters to compensate for the loss of cover price revenue, wouldn't it?

That was the argument expounded by Dominic Mills, the editor of Campaign magazine, a few months back when the owner of this title, Newspaper Publishing plc, first started to lobby the government to insert an amendment into the Competition Bill which would tackle predatory pricing in the newspaper sector.

Mr Mills argued: "Newspapers get revenue from both the product itself [the cover price] and ad revenue. So, in a free market, why shouldn't a publisher be able to forgo one [ie cover price] in order to maximise the other?"

I considered penning a riposte at the time, but concluded that the author was more to be pitied than scolded. Clearly, if you toil for too long on adland's weekly bible, you end up a sad case who imagines that advertising is the solution to everything under the sun.

There was a time when we could have expected a more politically sophisticated argument from the editor of The Times, but those days have long gone, judging by Peter Stothard's contribution to the predatory pricing debate published in last week's Guardian Media section.

Mr Stothard trotted out much the same argument as Dominic Mills, observing: "Business success for a newspaper demands the right balance of two streams of revenue, one from the cover price, the other from advertising."

When I see the editor of a quality national newspaper coming out with such simplistic tosh, I feel like offering to enroll him in an elementary Media Studies nightclass.

Doesn't the editor of The Times realise the price a publication has to pay for total, or near total, dependence on advertising? Hasn't he heard of corporations boycotting magazines in protest against some editorial content which offended them or inflicted some commercial damage? Can he name a single freesheet in the western world which is radical and progressive?

Peter Stothard has first-hand experience of freesheets, having turned The Times into one for a day when Microsoft temporarily acquired "The Thunderer" in order to trumpet the arrival of Windows '95.

He also worked for a long stint in the United States, so he has first- hand experience of a seriously dysfunctional society whose entire mainstream media is heavily dependent on advertising and/or corporate sponsorship. Even America's parody of a public broadcasting service, PBS, has become so reliant upon programme sponsorship by oil giants like Mobil that it has been dubbed the "Petroleum Broadcasting Service".

Let me spell it out for the soi disant free marketeers who haven't a clue about what it takes to have a truly free press. The case for outlawing predatory pricing in the UK newspaper sector is based upon a democratic desire to defend pluralism and diversity on Britain's news stands - something we cannot expect to be done by advertisers, or by editors who simply view their once proud newspapers as mere products whose sole objective is "business success".

Every publication must, of course, aim at washing its face financially. The only other option is find a sugar daddy, as the New Statesman has done. But there aren't many Geoffrey Robinsons and, when you locate one, he's normally lurking in a tax haven.

There is, of course, always the Barclay brothers. As Peter Preston observed in The Observer last week, this super-secretive duo are "accumulating basket cases for resuscitation with bewildering elan".

Nice word, elan - and the title of one of the sections in The European, I seem to recall, before Andrew Neil pared that publication down to resemble one of the 12 sections in The Sunday Times - one of the ones you hastily chuck in the budgie cage or the bin.

That's the problem with the Barclays - you end up being edited by Andrew Neil. And that's a mighty big problem, as my fellow media pundit Roy Greenslade has just belatedly discovered. He has vowed never to write another word for The European after its ever interfering editor-in-chief totally changed several passages in an article he contributed to that publication.

Greenslade told the trade journal the Press Gazette: "I will never work for them again. In all my career, even when I worked under Andrew at The Sunday Times, I never saw such a blatant change in copy."

All I can say is that Roy Greenslade must have had a pretty poor vantage point at Wapping. Didn't he know that, when Neil first took over the helm at The Sunday Times, he even altered the TV listings to give them a Thatcherite bias?

What amazes me is that it has taken so long for a media commentator of Roy Greenslade's stature to get the true measure of old Brillo Pad.

Hasn't it yet dawned upon him, or Stephen Glover, that if the only white knight on offer to a hitherto principled and progressive newspaper is Andrew Neil, then going to the wall is the preferable option - by far.