The Media Column: Why Londoners need a different Standard

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For a time, during the most strident days of the Thatcher hegemony, when her tones and certainties seemed to fill every known space, I gave up reading the London Evening Standard. Each weekday, the paper gave itself the task of loving her friends and destroying her enemies. Other points of view couldn't get a look in.

That was more than a decade ago. To the credit of Associated Newspapers, the publishers of the Mail titles, they appointed a succession of editors who allowed that there were other songs. I went back to the Standard. Although the last editor was disparaged by other newspaper folk as "insufficiently focused", I quite liked Max Hastings's eccentricities. The paper's robust defence of fox-hunting, for example, seemed a pleasant idiosyncrasy in a city where few ride to hounds.

Then, at the start of the year, Hastings was replaced by the Mail's Veronica Wadley. My second thought (after wondering if I'd still get any pieces commissioned – the Standard is a fabulous payer and a great platform), was to pray it would not revert to the grim, prurient right-wingery of the past.

Two months on, the signs are mixed. Certainly the news agenda sometimes seems to be a straight imitation of the Daily Mail's. Arriving back from Rome at the end of last week I picked up a paper that gave me a first six pages of Queen Mother rounded off by a full page of Liz Hurley and baby. This interrupted several weeks of an almost obsessive front-page focus on violent crime. Other stories, such as an inconsequential and unpleasant tale of two adulterous but unknown estate agents, have been direct lifts from Mail titles.

This zealous mixture of celebrity, curtain-twitching and scaremongering echoes the style of Associated's reclusive editor-in-chief, Paul Dacre. Until recently, however, the Mail's totalitarian tendencies – the desire to obliterate the opposing view – have been absent. Now there's evidence that this too may have begun to seep into the Standard. Dacre's absurd feud with the BBC over the Queen Mother coverage has been continued in Wadley's paper, with the controller of BBC1, Lorraine Heggessey, a special target. Somehow the phrase "Dyke in a skirt" looks different inThe Observer (where it originated last week, in a piece about women at Greg Dyke's BBC) than it does as part of an Associated campaign.

The problem with such a re-orientation becomes apparent in cases such as that of Commander Brian Paddick. In Mail-land Paddick is a villain. In London he is something of a hero. When the Standard took the Dacre line that Paddick should go, the letters page was full of dissenting voices. The response of the Standard was a demolition job on some of those campaigning in Paddick's favour.

If this is to be the Standard's direction, why should Mail readers, who already get this stuff, want to buy it as well as their morning paper? And what about the large number of liberal Londoners who are likely to find Dacrism – at best – quaint? The appointment of my former colleague, the pro-Labour Anne McElvoy, to the editorial team argues that Wadley is aware of this problem. As does the arrival at the paper of Norman Lebrecht, a classical-music specialist, to (in his words) lead "a revolution in the Standard's arts coverage".

So it could still go either way. Good. London is a generous, diverse city. A paper sold to those who live and work there should reflect something of those values, which are the opposite of the stifling moralism of monochrome Dacreville.

Comments