The Media Column: They sued to protect their own privacy. What will they tell Telegraph reporters?

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The Independent Online

Well, it's not the top-shelf-magazine publisher, it's not the faceless, cheese-paring money men and it's not the fellow from the Daily Mail. If, as seems certain, The Daily Telegraph has a new proprietor - new proprietors - in the form of Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, the emerging consensus seems to be that the paper has got off lightly.

And it probably has. But it might be wise for Telegraph staff to pause before celebrating too long and loudly.

Sure, the new ownership could have its benefits. If the arrival of the Barclays means, as surely it must, that The Daily and The Sunday Telegraph call a halt to their love affair with the American neo-conservatives, rebalance their coverage of Israel and stop treating the BBC as if it were responsible for reintroducing the Black Death to the UK, the papers ought to be able to regain their position as the voice of mainstream British Conservativism. We know from reading the Barclays' newspapers in Scotland that they are against the likes of devolution and the euro - stances that will, it should be said, be greeted more warmly by the average reader of The Daily Telegraph than they were when The Scotsman suddenly changed its mind on those issues.

Which brings us to our first note of caution. It is simplistic to see the Barclay brothers as entirely hands-off proprietors. If they do not often interfere directly, that is only because they can rely on David's son Aidan Barclay or (more usually) their publisher, Andrew Neil, to do so on their behalf. Between the group of them, the stances of The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday were enabled to perform a political somersault. The news pages have also, on occasion, been used directly to reflect their personal bugbears.

When a rich man buys into journalism, his accountants surely advise him that there is always a great chance that, in time, he will become a not-so-rich man. If one's sole aim in life is to maximise profits, then keep away from grubby hacks. There is still good money in widget-making (just as long as the widgets are assembled by 13-year-old sweatshop workers in China). Newspaper-buying will always involve an element of influence-buying. That surely is living in the real world and need not be a wicked thing. Which is not to say that the Barclays are not interested in the bottom line. Far from it. Cue alarm bell No 2.

The Barclay brothers are expert cost-cutters. Though, initially, they ploughed extra money into their Scottish titles, a few months into the experiment they shifted into reverse gear. And how. The past three years have been extremely unhappy at The Scotsman: the paper's annual budget is more than 20 per cent lower than was projected three years ago. Journalists have been made redundant. Pages have been cut back. And - surprise, surprise - sales are down. Last month, The Scotsman sold 66,800 copies; three years ago, it was selling 92,600, albeit at a lower cover price. The paper appears to be caught in a vicious circle - lower sales lead to lower budgets lead to smaller papers lead to lower sales...

One final thing. The Barclay brothers do not like to be called secretive. Indeed, seven years ago, Sir David made a rare foray into the public realm when he wrote to The Sunday Times, which had used just that adjective in connection with him.

"The fact that my brother and I do not seek personal publicity for ourselves, or for what we do, nor do we socialise or attend cocktail jamborees and get ourselves photographed in the popular press, is no reason to make us targets of inventive journalism," he wrote. "In a democracy, it is a fundamental right to choose one's own private life and the way one chooses to live it."

The pair were so private - a better word? - that a few years ago they sued the investigative reporter John Sweeney and even John Birt, then director general of the BBC, after Sweeney jumped into a rowing-boat and tried to doorstep them on their Channel Island hideaway of Brecqhou. The case was settled by an apology and costs in the High Court.

I am afraid that Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay are going to have to get used to the fact that even the gentleman reporters of The Daily Telegraph sometimes find it necessary to knock on people's doors uninvited.

* This time, there is no doubt. Rocky Ryan, the legendary newspaper hoaxer who once persuaded Israeli papers that Hitler was alive and well and living in Golders Green, is dead. We can be sure, because we do not have to take his word for it. A Scotland Yard spokeswoman has confirmed that a body was found at his flat and that "life was pronounced extinct by the forensic medical examiner".

A little less of the "lovable rogue" stuff, please. Has everyone forgotten Ryan's proud boast that he told the Iraqi authorities that the Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft was spying for Israel? Bazoft was subsequently hanged by Saddam Hussein.

Ryan, a professional liar (he used the word "storyteller"), may have been lying about having spoken to the Iraqis. But even if he was, he went on the record to say he "couldn't care less" about Bazoft's execution.

v.graff@independent.co.uk

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