Stephen Glover On The Press

The tragicomic history of those who would rule at the Telegraph
Click to follow
The Independent Online

This, with some dramatic licence, is what is happening at the Telegraph Group. Last week Sarah Sands, who had been editor of The Sunday Telegraph for only eight months, was escorted from the building, just as her immediate predecessor, Dominic Lawson, had been. Martin Newland resigned as editor of The Daily Telegraph last November. In Lord McGifty's turbulent 18-month reign three editors have departed. One wonders who will be next. Will Lord McGifty - aka Murdoch MacLennan, the chief executive of the Telegraph Group - himself fall victim to the dark forces he has engendered?

As I mentioned four weeks ago, Sarah Sands is an old friend of mine, but friendship does not prevent me from saying she made some mistakes. The relaunch of The Sunday Telegraph was far too dramatic. The masthead and typography were changed, news stories and features lightened, and a girlish magazine added.

No editor, though, is allowed to undertake such a radical transformation without the full approval of the management. The powers-that-be at the Telegraph Group believed that the Sunday title had too many readers who were old and dying, and they wanted to attract younger ones.

In the event, established readers, or some of them, were disgruntled, while the thirtysomething young women at whom the revamped Sunday Telegraph was partly aimed remained blissfully ignorant. Sarah was unwise to introduce changes so abruptly, and the paper's management equally unwise to encourage her. It was also naive to believe that such an overhaul could ever be successful without the spending of millions of pounds on promotion.

That said, the relaunch was hardly a catastrophe. By February, sales were down 0.4 per cent year-on-year at 683,741. Sarah seemed to be listening. The masthead, which she had turned blue, became black again. There was a campaign involving Boy Scouts, which I could never quite get to the bottom of, but was evidently supposed to appeal to traditional Sunday Telegraph types. Unfortunately, Sarah made the mistake of refusing to deal with John Bryant, the new editor-in-chief of the Telegraph Group, and the acting editor of The Daily Telegraph. The 61-year-old Mr Bryant is an easygoing fellow in whom the fires of ambition no longer burn fiercely, and he might have been a useful ally for Sarah.

It was not he but Murdoch MacLennan who did for her in the end - the same Murdoch MacLennan who had eagerly supported the relaunch only a few months earlier. In a grown-up newspaper company he would have jointly accepted responsibility for the errors that had been made, and would have stood by her as they tried together to get things right. Sarah was, after all, deputy editor of The Daily Telegraph for nine years, and is not the fluffy airhead her detractors imply. With guidance and support she might have got it right, but such attributes are in short supply at the Telegraph Group. Part of the problem is that Mr MacLennan is a great expert on printing presses but really knows very little about editorial, having been kept a million miles from such matters in his previous job at Associated Newspapers.

Patience Wheatcroft, The Sunday Telegraph's new editor, is by most accounts a safe pair of hands, and has presided over striking City pages at The Times. She is obviously strong on business, and said also to be on politics, though her weak point may be in those areas of arts and softer features where Sarah was at home. Let us hope that she is not second-guessed by Lord McGifty or the seething barons who surround him. She should find a useful ally in John Bryant, with whom she worked for many years on The Times.

Only an optimist could suppose that everything will now go swimmingly at the Telegraph Group. For all his gifts as a highly professional journalist, John Bryant's role as acting editor should be short-lived. His aping of the Daily Mail's news agenda will not please some Daily Telegraph readers.

Where should The Daily Telegraph be going? The seething barons think they have the answer, but few of them have been at the paper for long, and probably do not have much feeling for its readers. Nor, I fear, do Lord McGifty, the Barclay brothers themselves or Aidan Barclay, Sir David's son. There is a dangerous vacuum. One person keen to fill it is the City Editor, Will Lewis, whom I do not know. If they were to have two former City editors as editors - Patience Wheatcroft and Mr Lewis - the Barclays might invite the charge that their newspapers were becoming too close to their business interests.

One last clue that all is not well at the Telegraph Group was the censoring of an article last week written by my esteemed colleague Roy Campbell-Greenslade. Roy had done a piece revealing that the Press Complaints Commission was reviewing claims that the Daily Mirror's parent company, Trinity Mirror, made a false statement during the commission's investigation into the City Slickers scandal six years ago. John Bryant is said to have been behind the decision to can the piece, but who knows which hands were involved? If this should happen again, Roy only has one course of action. Resign!

Advertisers are turning to the internet, and this is costing jobs

When the two most profitable newspapers in Fleet Street apply cuts to their editorial budgets, it is time to wake up. Last week the Daily Mail announced a major review of costs, while The Sun clamped down on editorial expenses.

The reason in both cases is the decline in advertising-display revenue, which may be as much as 10 per cent year-on-year. Trinity Mirror recently reported that advertising turnover across its regional and national titles had fallen by 13.5 per cent in the first months of the year. The regional newspaper groups Archant and Johnston Press also announced sharp falls in advertising income last week.

The result is a growing number of redundancies. Johnston Press has announced job losses, as have the Daily Mirror and the Mail on Sunday. There is some evidence that the pain is sharpest amongst regional newspapers (with their heavy dependence on classified advertising, some of which is migrating to the net) and the red-top tabloids, which are particularly reliant on display advertising from retailers, who have been cutting back. Oddly, the Financial Times recently announced a slight increase in advertising revenue, though much of that originates from outside Britain.

During every advertising revenue decline that I can remember, there have been those saying that the decline is structural rather than cyclical. Although they have been wrong in the past, they may not be this time. Some classified advertising is being lost to the net for good. Now the net is stealing display as well. Overall display-advertising income will increase when the economy improves - it always has in the past - but newspapers will have to share some of the growth with the net.