Editor Rod Liddle?

What the blogosphere makes of the prospect of Rod Liddle editing the Indie

It might be a return to the editorial big time for the columnist and controversialist Rod Liddle, if the papers are to be believed. Media Guardian reported on Friday that:

The Sunday Times and Spectator columnist is understood to be the favoured candidate [for the editorship of the Independent] of the Russian businessman and London Evening Standard owner Alexander Lebedev if he succeeds in buying the paper in the next few weeks.

There are lots of "ifs" involved, obviously -- Lebedev has yet to buy the beleaguered titles, and there's the small matter of the existing editor, Roger Alton.

But when has uncertainty ever stopped a good bit of debate, speculation and outrage?

A Facebook group, called "If Rod Liddle becomes editor of the Independent, I will not buy it again", already has 878 members at the time of posting, so I think it's safe to say it's not a hugely popular prospect among Indie readers.

Alex Higgins, who set up the group, writes:

Rod Liddle would be a disappointing choice for the Daily Telegraph or the Daily Mail. For the Independent, it represents a direct affront to the readership . . .

. . . Independent readers deserve some respect -- the appointment of Rod Liddle is a clear act of contempt. If we wanted to read aggressive, bigoted, sarcastic ignorance, we would buy the Daily Express.

In particular, he takes issue with Liddle's past comments on women (who could forget the Harriet Harman "would you?" incident?) and race (he defended himself on this count on our blog). Higgins also makes the valid point that a defining feature of the Independent is its extensive coverage of global warming and other environmental issues -- sometimes, in the past, in defiance of the mainstream news agenda. Liddle has denied the evidence for the anthropogenic global warming theory.

It's probably fair to point out that, as editor of BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Liddle increased the show's audience to roughly seven million and took criticism in his stride as part of the job. This is fortunate, as the signs are that those at the Indie are no happier than the Facebook vigilantes about the possibility of his rule. The Guardian report points out that the Independent on Sunday called Weekend, Liddle's short-lived political programme for the BBC, "the worst programme anywhere, ever, in the history of time".

Sunder Katwala points out that Liddle courts controversy in the eyes of the public, but even apart from staff opinion is the problem posed by his lack of experience in the newspaper world.

Guido Fawkes also weighs into the debate. He, too, opposes the idea, but (predictably) is not aligned with the Indie's core readership. Instead, he says, Lebedev should appoint Matthew d'Ancona and

. . . move the Indie from the Guardian-dominated liberal-left space to the market opportunity on the liberal right.

I'm not so sure about this -- that would leave just the Guardian representing centre-left opinion in the mainstream press, and it's important to maintain a balance. It does prompt the question, though: Is anyone in favour of Rod Liddle being editor? Are you listening, Mr Lebedev? What's going on in there?

In the proliferation of tweets on the matter, I haven't yet seen a single positive one, although this caught my eye: "On the plus side, he might have less time to churn out tedious and reactionary articles."

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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How the Oval regained its shape: the famous cricket ground hosts its 100th Test

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the stadium in recent years keep coming.

Few stadiums have as rich a sporting history as the Oval. After opening its gates in 1845, it hosted England’s first home football international, the first FA Cup final, and Ireland’s inaugural rugby Test.

Though it took 35 years before a cricket Test match – the first ever in England – was played at the ground in Kennington, south London, it was worth waiting for. WG Grace scored 152 runs, setting the tone for many memorable performances  at the Oval. Among the highlights: Len Hutton’s 364 in 1938, still the highest Test score by an England batsman; Viv Richards’s double century and Michael Holding’s 14 wickets for the West Indies before an ecstatic crowd in 1976; England’s Ashes-clinching match in 2005, when a skunk-haired Kevin Pietersen thrashed the Australian attack.

But just five years later, in 2010, the Oval and its host club Surrey were in a bad way. For the first time since 1986, the first day of the annual Oval Test was not a sell-out, and attendances for county games were down. Finances were so stretched that Surrey made a dozen administrative staff redundant, and there was talk of insolvency. The club, which is owned by its 10,000 members and is a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall, was “very close to a substantial crisis”, Paul Sheldon, then chief executive, said at the time.

Today that seems far away. On 27 July, the Oval hosted its 100th Test, the third match of the series between England and South Africa. The first day was sold out. And Surrey are now the richest first-class county, with £12m of reserves. In 2019, work will begin on a redevelopment scheme that will increase the Oval’s capacity from 25,000 to 40,000, making it the biggest cricket ground in England. (Lord’s, the Oval’s more illustrious rival, can seat 28,000 people.)

“We are in a good place,” said Richard Gould, the current chief executive, one recent afternoon in his grandstand office overlooking the pitch, where a big group of local schoolchildren ran around in the sun.

How did the Oval regain its shape? Gould, whose father Bobby played football for Arsenal and was manager of Wimbledon when the team won the FA Cup in 1988, lists several factors. The first is a greater focus on non-cricketing revenue, taking advantage of the club’s historic facilities. In 2011, when Gould joined Surrey after stints at Bristol City football and Somerset cricket clubs, revenue from corporate events and conferences was £1.3m. This year the projected income is £4.6m.

The second factor is the surge in popularity of the T20 competition played by the 18 first class counties in England and Wales. Unlike Tests, which last for five days, a T20 Blast match takes just three hours. The frenetic format has attracted many people to games who have never previously followed cricket. Surrey, which like Lord’s-based Middlesex have the advantage of being in London, have been especially successful in marketing its home games. Advance sell-outs are common. Surrey reckon they will account for one in six T20 tickets bought in the UK this season, with gate receipts of £4m, four times more than in 2010.

Whereas Test and even one-day international spectators tend to be regulars – and male – Gould estimates that up to 70 per cent of those who attend T20 games at the Oval are first-timers. Women, and children under 16, typically constitute a quarter of the crowd, a higher percentage than at football and rugby matches and a healthy trend for the game and the club.

The strong domestic T20 sales encouraged the Oval’s management to focus more on the county than on the national team. Until a few years ago, Surrey never seriously marketed its own merchandise, unlike professional football clubs, which have done so successfully for decades.

“When I came here, everything around the ground was focused on England,” Gould said. “We needed to put our team first. In the past, county cricket did not make you money. With T20, there’s a commercial business case.”

To raise its profile and pull in the crowds, Surrey have signed some of the biggest international stars in recent years, including Australia’s Ricky Ponting, South Africa’s Hashim Amla, Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and Kevin Pietersen, who is now mainly a T20 franchise player. For the players, as with the counties, it’s where the money is.

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the Oval in recent years keep coming. In common with many businesses today, customer data is crucial. The club has 375,000 names on its marketing database, of which 160,000 are Surrey supporters. But since the average T20 purchaser buys six tickets, many people who attend games at the Oval remain unknown to the club. One way Surrey are trying to identify them is through a service that allows one person to book tickets for a group of friends, who then each pay the club directly. Another method is through offering free, fast Wi-Fi at the ground, which anyone can use as long as they register their email address.

For all the focus on T20, Gould is keen to stress that England internationals, especially Test matches, are a crucial part of the Oval’s future – even if the business model may have to be tweaked.

“We always want to be one of the main Test venues. The problem we have is: will countries still put aside enough time to come to play Tests here? In many countries domestic T20 now takes precedence over international cricket. It may be that we may have to start to pay countries to play at the Oval.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue