Why newspapers need a saviour

Sales are in decline and journalists' standards have also fallen, says Derek Jameson . If newspapers are to survive, they must shape up
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The Independent Online

IT IS astonishing to realise that most of us in the industry - and I am talking about editors in our time - hadn't much of a clue how much our papers made. Nobody bothered editors with mundane matters like profit. All the papers I worked on, I had no idea whether they were making money or not. I took the view that they probably were but it didn't matter. You were there to produce good newspapers. You were there to inform, communicate, entertain, stimulate the public. All the rules laid down by Hugh Cudlipp and Arthur Christiansen - the two giants of this century in our terms.

IT IS astonishing to realise that most of us in the industry - and I am talking about editors in our time - hadn't much of a clue how much our papers made. Nobody bothered editors with mundane matters like profit. All the papers I worked on, I had no idea whether they were making money or not. I took the view that they probably were but it didn't matter. You were there to produce good newspapers. You were there to inform, communicate, entertain, stimulate the public. All the rules laid down by Hugh Cudlipp and Arthur Christiansen - the two giants of this century in our terms.

What about today's newspapers? Well it is not all bad - there are many bright spots. The British Press does stay true to its tradition of being the best and the worst in the world. The broadsheets hold the line. Solid, reliable - as boring as ever. The Mail papers continue to ring bells better than the rest, though the Daily is a bit too feminine for my taste. And all that feverish anti-Blair propaganda must blow up in their faces one day.

The Mirror is fighting back. Piers Morgan has worked wonders even if he did come from a pop column. Rupert seems to have taken the heat off The Sun but remember it remains far and away the most popular paper in the land.

I like The Express make-up but the content doesn't do anything for me - "The Paper For The Millennium"? Don't hold your breath, Rosie.

As for the Daily Star - what a shame! Limping along without promotion, it could easily die of neglect.

In my day the overriding problem was how to get the ship into the bottle. Our papers were a marvel of compression; our sub editors admired the world over. Today the bottle has become a 10-gallon jar. Bigger and bigger papers, more and more chaff in a frantic effort to fill them. The Press has become self-obsessed and flabby. Today's ruling philosophy is fat newspapers with a high cover-price and fat advertising revenue. The profession, generally, is held in contempt by almost everyone outside the industry. There are few worthy exceptions - much of what we read is marshmallow pap. Stories of jumped-up pop stars with limited shelf-life; telly persons desperate for publicity - nobodies posing as somebody.

Presumably the manic cavortings of this brigade are covered to death to irritate old aged pensioners like myself since even today's editors must know that the young no longer read newspapers. These days the men in suits - accountants, business school graduates and so on - have taken over from the proprietors and editorial directors of yesteryear. For all the feeble crowing about putting a handful of copies here and there, the circulation charts continue to display row upon row of minus signs. Sales are less than half where they stood in my heyday. There is a danger that the printed word as produced by the popular Press will give way to the Internet and become redundant in the 21st century. Why else do you think that Rupert Murdoch has diverted his millions to satellite television and Kelvin Mackenzie runs a radio station?

The time has come for a newspaper revolution to restore the mass appeal that came in waves through much of this century. The new millennium must find something new, exciting and different. We need a saviour, perhaps, a pathfinder like Cudlipp or Christiansen before things go from bad to worse. Standards have fallen. Production values make the toes curl. Let's see an end to all those terrible puns and two-page spreads where five paragraphs would have been more than enough.

Now where is my evidence? One recent headline: "Take us to Euro-leader". How soppy. If I was on the back bench and someone gave me that, I'd say: "Piss off".

News values: the vital thing on every newspaper. The back bench, the night editor, features, news editor, knew what was the right story for the front page for their readers. Not every paper, but for their paper. What has happened to that?

Two Fridays ago, there was one story that stood out beyond all others. It wasn't in any of my editions in Brighton in the populars. It was in the broadsheets. "Silcott wins £50,000 from the police" [for wrongful conviction for the murder of PC Keith Blakelock].

Now that, surely, I mean, call me thick or stupid but that surely had to be the story of the day on Saturday morning? The guy had already picked up £17,000. He was still serving life for another killing. Right or wrong they decided it was an unsound judgement and he was exonerated of [killing PC Blakelock]. Fair enough, that's British justice at work. But he gets £50,000. Blakelock's widow is threatening to sue him for damages and where is it in the pops? Where was it in the Mail, The Mirror, or The Sun? Buried away inside. It doesn't seem possible does it?

Here is another example. Somewhere the fair play, the decency, the gut instinct has gone. It really worries me. Mahzer Mahmood, chief investigations editor of the News of the World, came to me years ago from a very stable, distinguished family in the Midlands - his father is a Labour councillor in the Birmingham area - desperate to be Fleet Street reporter. And because he was a young Asian lad he felt he could infiltrate his community; could turn up lots of stories on immigration fiddles, VAT, and all the rest of that. I wondered what he would want to do that for. It is his family, his community. Go back, if you get a good story, give us a call.

Now he is the chief investigations editor. He has made it, Good luck to him, I wish him well. I want him to succeed - but some of the things he gets up to. Posing as a sheikh. And the great triumph the other Sunday was "Two more brought to justice by our Maz". And one of them was a Radio 2 presenter colleague of mine, Johnnie Walker, and he got done because Maz, good old Maz, was posing as an Arab sheikh and buying cocaine off him. But what worried me in reading "Two more brought to justice by our Maz" was that it missed out the paragraph that I read at the bottom of the Daily Telegraph report. The magistrate, Mrs Keating, criticised the News of the World journalist, saying that it made it difficult for someone to be given a fair trail. She said she did not approve of how the journalists had conducted themselves or of the filth they had written about Walker. And that is us. That is why the Press is held in such disrepute because of things like that. Nobody questions it, nobody challenges it. They get away with it.

Derek Jameson is former editor of the 'Daily Express', 'Daily Star' and 'News of the World'. This is from the Hugh Cudlipp Memorial Lecture at the London Press Club

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