Just good friends. Far from dumbing down, newspapers have never been better resourced or more authoritative and entertaining, argues Peter Stothard. So why is Stephen Glover so gloomy?
Secrets of the Press: Journalists on Journalism
Stephen Glover (editor) Penguin Press, 306pp,
I must be careful. I must tiptoe like a thoroughbred cat through the next 1,300 words. Stephen Glover writes in his introduction to this book that "if journalists have a fault, it is to bear grudges and nurse hatreds as a result of having had rude or harsh things written about them". Since the media columnist of the Spectator has written a good deal of rubbish about the Times and about its editor, namely me, whom he always terms his "old friend", I might be excused a rare riposte. I suspect that the literary editor of the New Statesman is hoping that I will take this opportunity to hit back hard (as headline writers like to put it). But Glover is a delicate flower himself - and I will be careful.
This book is a collection of essays by diverse hands. Glover's aim is to give a sight of what goes on behind the scenes, to let newspaper readers see what newspaper people keep secret. There is an elegant chapter on old Fleet Street from Francis Wheen, some timely warnings about journalists and the law from Richard Ingrams and a learned article on gossip writers by Peter McKay. There are writers on the art of expenses fraud (alcohol is always "refreshment" and a good correspondent will need to hire a camel from time to time), the girl columnist (humiliation is essential, spermicidal jelly helps) and the science of the interview (what to do when Rudolf Nureyev starts giving you plumbing lessons).
There are references to newspaper editors, a cowardly, egomaniac breed, we are told, wholly cut off from reality: we terrorise our staff and are terrorised by our proprietors; we dumb down, betray our traditions, have no interest in investigative reporting and cynically promote the cult of underwear columnists. I ought probably at this point to mention some of the strangely neglected virtues of my editor colleagues. Their staffs have never been better paid or freer to change employers; talent is everywhere bought at a premium; the "lifestyle columnists" come in addition to the political and foreign affairs specialists, not in place of them; and neither Jonathan Aitken nor Michael Ashcroft would agree that investigative journalism is dead. But to develop these themes might be seen as showing the very fault of which Glover accuses us.
It would be better to admit that a little paranoia has a proper place in journalism, even that it might have been worthy of a chapter in Glover's book. Stephen Fay, the former deputy editor (twice) of the Independent on Sunday, comes closest in his contribution entitled "Breakfast at Claridges: getting the sack", the breakfast in question being the one in which Sir Peregrine Worsthorne received his "professional death sentence" as editor of the Sunday Telegraph. Fay writes persuasively of how job insecurity influences the character of the press: in many respects, he argues, the effect is for the better since "in journalism the boot is part of life and getting the sack is part of the collective psyche of the trade". But he has to end his story too soon.
The reputations of both Glover and Fay are linked with the rise and fall of the Independent, the paper which in the 1980s was founded to be free of the traditional newspaper proprietor and in the 1990s would have died without one. Glover was the Independent founder member who, through his editorship of the Independent on Sunday, lost his job and took much of the blame for the company's disaster. But, apart from a suitably wry study of signed obituary writing by the paper's veteran antiquarian James Fergusson, there is not much about the Independent saga in this book.
That is a pity. The Independent story would make a very special study in paranoia. Any institution that rises on high ideals and collapses in incompetence and unreality is a breeding ground for the disease. Fear of being fired by a restless editor or proprietor may indeed be good for character and creativity. But the collapse of an ideal built on "virtue" can have an utterly corrosive effect on those at the revolution's heart. I suspect that Glover, always a frail and sensitive figure, found life in the late Independent days as bruising as did Lenin's idealists under Stalin. So probably it was better for him not to dwell on it.
The most serious contribution concerning the standard of modern newspapers is Worsthorne's own. The breakfaster at Claridges describes how in the 1950s, while training at the Times for his eventual Telegraph eminence, he both admired the special standards of sub-editorial precision demanded of him in those days and recognised that it was not his metier to meet them. He recalls an awkward confrontation with his editor about the misspelling of the name of the junior Sudanese postal minister, a failure that, he suggests, would hardly be a hanging offence today. Yet, instead of merely bemoaning the decline from boyhood glory (nostalgia is the enemy of even the most honest contributors to Glover's book), he cheerfully admits how much he has personally benefited from the changing times: it was only because the sub-editor stopped being the sole ruler of the newspaper that Worsthorne and other imaginative spirits of journalism were able to flourish.
Unlike those contributors who weep for both Fleet Street past and Docklands present, Worsthorne has the honesty to accept that the standard of contemporary newspaper writing is vastly superior to that of the 1950s. Both at the Times and elsewhere, there has been a shift from the provision of a certain sort of record, highly restricted in content and by no means as reliable as the nostalgic like to claim, towards the broader communication of facts, opinions and ideas. Worsthorne does not decry the dullness of the Times in the 1950s. He excuses it as the responsible approach for the noticeboard of a great power's elite at the time. That is a nice point. But, since media studies students are likely to be a major market for this book, I should say that there were other more obvious, less interesting explanations for the Times's near-death experience in those days, including smug elitism, fear of change and an ostrich-like approach to competition.
Glover is a determined apostle of dullness. He lectures us all on dullness. He thinks that his Independent could have dully succeeded if only he had not been betrayed by his colleagues. He thinks that the Times should be duller - a piece of advice which, if taken, would conveniently advance the interests of the Spectator's owner, the Telegraph group. The great failing of this book is the failure to grasp the central problem of adapting great newspaper institutions to our hurried, more technological age. A single piece on the Internet by the religious affairs writer Andrew Brown is not enough.
Among the trash that is strewn today around the information highways, the need for attractive, reliable, wide-ranging, authoritative newspaper titles on and off the net is greater than at any time since the Times first emerged from the coffee-house gossip of the 18th century. How are we both to fulfil that need and protect our papers from the forces that threaten to tear them apart? Alan Rusbridger of the Guardian has written intelligently about this elsewhere. Even one of the ex-editors who now, like Glover, earn a living by writing about the press could have contributed a view. I can assume only that none was asked.
The writer is editor of the "Times"