The price of cast iron

Few people notice Reuters, but it is a very big player in global news and its independence matters.

Twenty-nine years ago this spring I got my hair cut, put on my new suit (light grey, narrow shoulders, wide lapels) and headed for London to be interviewed for a traineeship at Reuters. I remember the day vividly, right down to the way the world's greatest news organisation short-changed me on my travel expenses.

But I got the job, and it really was the world's greatest news organisation - or it had as good a claim to the title as any - so I'm not complaining. I know now what I did not fully realise then: short of finding Lord Lucan, I had the best possible break into journalism.

Outside the news industry and the world of finance, people have never given much thought to Reuters. It lacked the glamour of the BBC or a daily paper such as the Guardian, and besides the odd, grudging credit in the foreign pages, or a rare mention on the television news in connection with a breaking story, it was invisible.

Yet it was extremely important, and it is at least as important today as it ever was, for Reuters is one of the strongest strands holding the globalised news world together.

We imagine that there is a great riot of news sources in every country these days, and an almost infinite variety of means of conveying the news to every other country, but that is not the reality. In practice, global news is like the global food industry - dominated by big traders - and Reuters, supplying pictures, sound and words everywhere and in every medium, is one of the biggest.

Naturally, you sometimes find an item of international news that hasn't passed through Reuters or one of its rivals, just as you can find coffee that hasn't been shipped by Cargill or sold by Tesco, but that doesn't mean that Cargill, Tesco, Reuters, CNN and the rest of them do not dominate their markets.

Systematic global journalism is very expensive and increasingly dangerous: only big organisations with clout and experience can engage in it. They deliver, reliably and around the clock, to the people who bring the news to you and me. And that doesn't just mean old-technology stuff. Those news reports scrolling across the pages of Yahoo!, MySpace, AOL and thousands of other web services are not generated by reporters and editors working for Yahoo! or AOL; they come direct from organisations such as Reuters.

Given this global importance, it was always comforting for those concerned with the ethics and freedom of news that Reuters was independent. When I worked there it was still owned by a consortium of British newspapers, but it used to boast that it was not British but international, and beholden to no government.

So, during the Falklands war in 1982 , when the Ministry of Defence rang to ask Reuters to stop reporting on the progress of the British task force on the grounds that this could aid the enemy, the editor is said to have replied, "I hardly sink zat is appropriate," and hung up. He was German.

When Reuters was floated on the stock market in 1984 (a bonanza for the sellers that, among many other things, gave Rupert Murdoch the cash to move his papers to Wapping) there was concern about how this integrity would be protected. So, after some controversy, special arrangements were made.

No one person would ever be allowed to hold more than 15 per cent of the stock and there would also be a "founders share" - a blocking vote to ensure that "Reuters shall at no time pass into the hands of any one interest, group or faction". Doubters, notably the journalist Alexander Chancellor, son of a past Reuters chief executive, were told that this amounted to cast-iron protection.

Now, however, a deal has been done under which Reuters is supposed to pass into the hands of Thomson of Canada and one family will own 53 per cent of the combined company. Everybody with an interest in this £8bn transaction insists there is nothing to worry about because the Thomsons are reputable owners. But can they tell us what will happen when the family sells, as in time it surely will? Of course not.

Your daily organ

Speeches and birdsong, pig wallcharts and Italian classes, Horrible Histories collections and Sandie Shaw CDs . . . and still they come, those circulation-inflating freebies to which our papers seem to have become addicted.

It is, of course, nothing new. Matthew Engel, in his marvellous history of the popular press, Tickle the Public, described a remarkably enduring giveaway craze that began in the 1880s and ran right through to the 1920s, in which newspapers presented their readers with free insurance.

The effect, Engel wrote, was to lend the daily paper a gloomy air. "This applied even to the normally relentlessly upbeat Express, whose morale-boosting message to its readers one summer's morning in 1922 was that it was the only paper that would insure them against appendicitis."

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger