Sometimes it's good to talk

When The Times editor took temporary leave, Fleet Street took leave of its senses. Or did it?

There is a sound of the munching of humble pie in Fleet Street following the disclosure that The Times editor Peter Stothard is temporarily leaving because he is ill, and not because he has been sidelined by Rupert Murdoch.

At the time The Guardian wondered on its front page whether this was comeuppance for the battle with Lord Ashcroft of Belize; the London Evening Standard ran a "Murdoch sacks Stothard" story only to pull it from its later editions when the truth came out; The Independent and Telegraph speculated on successors.

The same day a furious, but perhaps wiser, Mr Stothard explained that he was taking time off for treatment on a tumour and would return when the treatment was over.

Though it is a couple of weeks since this happened, the inquests on the coverage continue. Roy Greenslade, of The Guardian, saw fit to lecture the rest of the press, even though it was his paper that speculated most wildly and most prominently. A sick man had tried to leave his post with dignity, he said, "and ended up mired in a welter of media muck".

And former Mirror editor David Banks, who is suffering from leukaemia, said yesterday: "There cannot be a journalist who didn't feel unease, sympathy and - provided they were fortunate enough not to have taken part in the 'quality' press version of a feeding frenzy - a touch of anger at the revelation that a seriously ill colleague had been 'outed' to protect himself and his newspaper from commercial damage."

Certainly, we all feel sympathy. But if there is any unease to be felt it should be felt by News International and its inept handling of the affair. As the barely believable rumours circulated that Mr Stothard was leaving to spend time looking at The Times' online services, News International responded to callers with a terse one-line statement that he was "taking time off to work on special projects".

I was probably not alone in pointing out to News International's corporate affairs office that such a brief, enigmatic statement was unsatisfactory and would inevitably lead to several hundred words of speculation in the next day's press. I was also probably not alone in being told in so many words by News International, "Too bad. That's all you're going to get." But the departure, even a temporary one, of the editor of The Times is too important a media matter to be relegated to the briefs column, especially when the proprietor has a history of liking to keep his staff in a state of permanent insecurity.

As it happens, there were rumours that Mr Stothard was ill, but it would have been an intrusion to print them without any confirmation. Instead, the only option left was to report News International's inadequate statement and try to help readers by looking at how The Times had been performing and the record of the proprietor in dealing, not always fairly, with his editors.

Not good enough, says Greenslade. "In this era of practised spin doctors, are we now so consumed with conspiracy theories that we cannot accept anything at face value?"

Let's get real, as the editor of The Times might not say. Accept at face value the explanation that The Times editor is going to stop editing his paper for six months for no apparent reason? That would be sloppy, uninquisitive journalism.

Peter Stothard now admits he would have been better off to have explained properly at the time why he was leaving. News International did him no favours with a statement that provoked more questions than answers. But if they are clumsy and irritating, they are not uniquely so. Newspapers can be surprisingly poor communicators about their own affairs. The corporate offices need only to give guidance, on or off the record, to inquiring journalists. It is, after all, what happens when writing stories about other industries. Terse one-liners lead to speculation that can damage the subject of the article and baffle the readers.

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