Stephen Glover On The Press

A revamp needs time and money, so why are the knives out for Sarah?
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The Independent Online

nything I write about The Sunday Telegraph should be treated with a largish pinch of salt. This is because its editor, Sarah Sands, is an old friend of mine, and one of my heroines. But even I cannot stay my hand any longer in view of what has been going on.

Last autumn the paper was relaunched. This was not the usual newspaper makeover in which the deckchairs are moved around. Almost everything seemed to change - the masthead, the typography, the magazines, the very character of the paper. The review section was junked, and reviews transferred to one of the new magazines, where they seemed less august. Its defenders said that the new paper was modern and more interesting to women; its detractors that it had dumbed down and would repel some traditional readers.

After an initial spurt in sales, the paper has settled down to roughly where it was before the £2m relaunch. In January it sold an average of 682,739 copies (including foreign sales and so-called bulks), a decline of 1.4 per cent over the same month last year. This figure was boosted by a Mozart DVD on 29 January which lifted circulation by some 120,000 copies. Since then sales have come back to a little below the January figure. No one could pretend that the relaunch has added sales; and there is some evidence that it has mislaid a few.

As a consequence the knives have been out for Sarah. A number of senior journalists on The Daily Telegraph have been speaking ill of her, either to management or the chairman, Aidan Barclay. Most of these people either want her job on the Sunday paper, or else hanker after the editorship of The Daily Telegraph when the interim editor-in-chief, John Bryant, stands aside, as it is assumed he will sooner or later do. Much of their time is spent plotting against one another, but they find common cause in their criticisms of Sarah. By the way, my friendly advice to her would be to stop suggesting in public that sales will have increased by the summer.

Clearly the relaunch has not been a runaway success, but it would be grossly unfair to pin all the blame on Sarah. She was told by management to produce radical changes, and she duly obliged. The sound rule that relaunches should be gradual and evolutionary, so as not to offend core readers, was not obviously observed. This might not have mattered so much if Sarah had been given a marketing war-chest so that her paper could be brought to the attention of new readers, such as younger women, who might be attracted by the changes if only they knew about them. She has so far received rather little promotional money. When she has, as in the case of the well-judged Mozart DVD, it has worked well.

Here I should turn to Murdoch MacLennan, the chief executive of the Telegraph Group, who certainly endorsed the editorial changes wrought by Sarah. I now accept that any criticisms I may have appeared to have made about Murdoch in the past were ill-judged, and should be discounted. He well knows, as a former chief executive of Associated Newspapers, the value of promotion. He understands that the more you change a newspaper, the more you will need to promote it. So I cannot imagine for a moment that he ever thought it would be possible to transform The Sunday Telegraph without a substantial promotional budget. I am confident that Murdoch will find the money, as I am equally sure that he will ignore the sniping of ambitious and innately turbulent executives.

Good taste proves little consolation in cartoon row

My impression is that many British editors think they handled the controversy of the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed rather well. Few of them toss and turn at night wondering whether they have imperilled the principle of free speech. The cartoons, after all, were banal and extreme. In sticking their necks out to publish them, a small number of European editors were breaking a butterfly on a wheel. In this country The Liberal (a fringe publication, of the Liberal Democrats) published the cartoons on its website, as The Spectator website also (briefly) did, while a Cardiff university student magazine was pulped after it ran a cartoon. But all mainstream publications have avoided them.

In view of their low quality, and the offence they would have caused to ordinary Muslims, editors were probably right to do so. But they should not imagine the argument has gone away. Those who believe in censorship will think they have won a kind of victory. Franco Frattini, the European Union commissioner for justice, freedom and security, has unveiled plans for a European press charter committing the media to "prudence" when reporting on Islam and other religions. Another way of putting this might be to say that the commission does not want European newspapers to publish material which might undermine relations with Muslim countries, and thereby damage the commercial interests of the union. Peter Mandelson, Jack Straw and President Jacques Chirac would - to judge by their recent utterances - cheerfully go along with this.

In this country the little-known Muslim Action Committee, which claims to represent more than 650 mosques, would like the Press Complaints Commission to ban newspapers from publishing images of the Prophet. The Muslim Action Committee also wants amendments to the Race Relations Act to give Muslims the same protection as Sikhs and Jews. In fact the act has little or nothing to do with religion. It offers Jews and Sikhs and others protection against discrimination on the basis of their race. It does not prohibit theological criticism of Sikhism or Judaism. It could not, for example, be used to suppress an offensive cartoon of Moses.

Since no British newspaper has chosen to carry a cartoon of the Prophet, one might ask what would be the point of officially proscribing such publication. It is one thing for papers to decide, for reasons of taste, not to run such material, though it would be legal to do so; quite another to tell them they cannot. That would amount to an act of censorship. It would establish a privilege not enjoyed by other religions, and we can be reasonably certain that, once granted, it would be followed by more coercive demands.

That is why no one who believes in free speech should be sanguine about recent events. The newspapers which carried these horrible cartoons were at least defending the principle that they alone should determine, within the limits of the law, what to publish. Franco Frattini and the Muslim Action Committee do not accept this. They would like to determine, with the limits of laws amended by them, what newspapers should be allowed to publish. We have seen the early shots in a battle that threatens our freedom.