Stephen Glover on the Press

It's about time the Barclays either backed or sacked their editor
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When I joined The Daily Telegraph, more than 25 years ago, I quickly discovered that one of the favoured topics of discussion was the future of its editor, Bill Deedes. In the stygian King and Keys in Fleet Street, where Telegraph journalists drank heroic amounts, there was continual debate. It was thought he might be replaced at any moment, and the name of Andreas Whittam Smith was commonly invoked as his likely successor. In the event, Bill lasted another seven years as editor, and is still dazzling us with the brilliance of his writing, while Andreas went on to become the first editor of this newspaper. But I learnt that few subjects so interest journalists as the fate of their editor.

When I joined The Daily Telegraph, more than 25 years ago, I quickly discovered that one of the favoured topics of discussion was the future of its editor, Bill Deedes. In the stygian King and Keys in Fleet Street, where Telegraph journalists drank heroic amounts, there was continual debate. It was thought he might be replaced at any moment, and the name of Andreas Whittam Smith was commonly invoked as his likely successor. In the event, Bill lasted another seven years as editor, and is still dazzling us with the brilliance of his writing, while Andreas went on to become the first editor of this newspaper. But I learnt that few subjects so interest journalists as the fate of their editor.

The debate on Bill's fortunes now seems casual and sporadic in comparison with the speculation surrounding the future of the present editor, Martin Newland. The difference is that the fevered discussion is not confined to the Telegraph, as it was in Bill's case, but animates the whole of what was known as Fleet Street. The question, "any news from the Telegraph?", means, "have you heard who Martin Newland's successor will be?" A few weeks ago the name of Patience Wheatcroft, The Times's business editor, went around like wildfire, though she has denied any knowledge of her rumoured promotion. All such talk must be distressing to Newland, though he appears to be bearing up.

There is, in truth, no obvious reason why his demise should have been anticipated almost from the moment he took over, in the autumn of 2003. He seems competent and likeable, and the Telegraph, though perhaps not enjoying a golden period, remains a highly professional newspaper. He may have been picked on because his appointment was one of the final acts of the Telegraph's then-proprietor, Conrad Black, whose reputation now lies in ruins. As a newshound, with few intellectual pretensions, Newland was dismissed in certain snobbish quarters, and it did not help that hardly anyone had heard of him. Even so, I am hard pushed to explain why his editorship should have been subject to such unfavourable scrutiny. There are national newspaper editors with less talent whom no one ever speaks of. It may be that Newland has not taken sufficient trouble with his own PR.

Whatever the causes, we have to accept that things are as they are. A Telegraph source tells me that the contagion has spread to the Barclay brothers, who now own the Telegraph, and that they - or Aidan Barclay, Sir David's son and the chairman of the Telegraph Group - have been conducting a sort of beauty-parade in their minds of possible successors. Even Lawrence Sear, the managing editor of The Daily Telegraph, and not a man whose name has been frequently associated with vacant editorial chairs, is said to have offered to throw his hat into the ring pro bono publico. There are, perhaps, more plausible internal candidates - Sarah Sands, Newland's feisty deputy, for one, Dominic Lawson, the brooding and ambitious editor of The Sunday Telegraph, for another - and five or 10 people in the outside world who might do the job perfectly well, of whom Patience Wheatcroft is doubtless one. Nevertheless, the Barclays' review has produced no obvious replacement, perhaps because they do not have a very clear idea of what they are looking for.

Is this not the problem? If the Telegraph has lost something of its authoritative political voice, if its news coverage seems not quite as sure as it once used to be, might this not be at least partly because the Barclays themselves are somewhat at sea? Neither Sir David nor Sir Frederick nor Aidan could be described as experienced newspapermen, though they are evidently outstanding businessmen. Andrew Neil, the man they have relied on in the past to run their newspaper interests, has been put in charge of a relative sideshow comprising The Spectator, The Scotsman and The Business. Murdoch MacLennan, the new chief executive of the Telegraph Group, is a great expert on presses, which is certainly a vital skill, but he is not really a "publisher" as the word is normally understood. One can't help feeling that at least some of the flak thrown at Newland should be directed towards his employers.

If the management and owners of a newspaper group are weak in editorial matters, their best hope is to find an editor who isn't. Newland is in an impossible position. His job is given away 10 times a day, and his staff, already demoralised by cutbacks, are not sure who will be leading them the week after next. The Barclays must make up their minds. If they wish Newland to remain editor of The Daily Telegraph for the foreseeable future, they must tell its journalists that he enjoys their full confidence. It is in the nature of such things that this might not carry complete credibility, but it would be widely believed. If the Barclays feel unable to make such an undertaking, they had better get on and find a new editor now.

Read the figures and stop weeping

There is general gloom about the future of newspapers, and, in some quarters, an assumption that in 20 or 30 years they will be a minority interest. In Britain and America, overall newspaper circulation continues to slip, a trend only partly offset by the tabloidisation of quality titles started by this newspaper. The most common reasons given for the sales decline are the rise of the internet and the reluctance of a growing number of young people to sit down and read.

How, then, is one to interpret the latest figures in World Press Trends, published by the World Association of Newspapers? According to this report, newspapers around the world enjoyed a two-per-cent increase in circulation last year, as well as five-per-cent growth in advertising revenue. Surprisingly, not all the increase was confined to the Third World. Although newspaper sales fell by 4.5 per cent in this country last year (and are down by 11 per cent since 2000), they rose in Spain (up one per cent), Portugal (six per cent) and Austria (two per cent). In Poland, newspaper circulation increased by 15 per cent, some of which must be accounted for by a new title launched there by the German publisher Axel Springer.

The sharpest growth was in Africa (up six per cent) and Asia (four per cent). This no doubt explains why British groups such as DMGT, publisher of the Daily Mail, are looking at growth-markets like India. But the report shows there is also expansion in the developed world. Poland, as a post-communist country with a high economic growth rate, may be a special case, but Austria, Spain and even Portugal are developed economies. There are dangers in our being too deterministic about decline. Perhaps a contracting readership tells us as much about the shortcomings of our own newspapers as it does about systemic decline. The death of newspapers, it seems, has been much exaggerated.

scmgox@aol.com

Comments