Who are you calling dull, Mr Stothard?

Peter Stothard scarcely bothers to review Secrets of the Press (Books, 27 September). His purpose is to defend his record as editor of the Times. In so doing he attributes views to me that I do not hold. I edited the book, but contributed only 17 out of 307 pages. I am not remotely gloomy about the future of newspapers, as a brief perusal of my introduction will show. Nor am I "a determined apostle of dullness" so far as the Times is concerned. I just think Stothard has cheapened and vulgarised parts of the paper he inherited. I do believe that he has sacrificed seriousness - but to be serious is not necessarily to be dull.

In writing about the Independent, Stothard is keen to blame me for some of its wounds. As architect of the Times's price war he should surely take some of the credit. In September 1993, when the Times slashed its price, the Independent was selling nearly 340,000 copies a day. It now sells about 225,000. The strategy of Stothard and his master, Rupert Murdoch, was to kill off the fledgling Independent. Tens of millions of pounds have been transferred to the loss-making Times from profitable parts of the Murdoch empire to subsidise the price war. In this, at least, Peter Stothard has been fantastically successful.

Stephen Glover

Who is Peter Stothard kidding? Today's broadsheets don't dumb down but have merely shifted "towards the broader communication of facts, opinions and ideas"?

Reading this nonsense, I thought back to late July when I was returning from a trip to Moscow and Belgrade. On the plane to London I was handed a copy of the Times and looked for news on Russia or Yugoslavia. The coverage was negligible, but there was a full-page interview with Janet Street Porter. That said it all.

What the broadsheets give us day after day is a new diet of celebrity nonsense, cheap opinion and starvation rations of investigative journalism. Their political world is dominated by figures such as Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell and the ghosts of the Thatcher years (this week, in the Times, "The Lamont Years"). Investigative journalism? Peter Stothard cites Jonathan Aitken and Michael Ashcroft to prove it survives. But are the sexual and financial dealings of a handful of Conservatives everyone's idea of investigative journalism?

International "coverage"? Tittle-tattle from America: "Doctors have ordered President Clinton to give his voice a rest to ease chronic irritation on his vocal chords"; Michael Douglas's wife "said that she and the Fatal Attraction star were not divorced"; "Kennedy's love link with the Mafia is dead"; and "the president has been comfort eating" - all from last Monday's Times.

You can call this many things, but "broader communication of facts . . . and ideas" it ain't. The broadsheets' sense of our world is parochial beyond belief. The view of the world from Canary Wharf or Wapping is this: Zoe Ball, Princess Diana and Will Carling loom large; South America, South Asia or South Yorkshire are barely visible.

Culture and ideas? The agenda is set in London by PR firms and publicity departments. What matters is what's new and big. Ours is an Alzheimer culture, a supermarket world where everything must be piled high and sold cheap. It's hardly surprising, then, that Stothard can write about how "the standard of contemporary newspaper writing is vastly superior to that of the 1950s". What of Arthur Koestler and A J P Taylor? Are Joanna Coles and Kate Muir so obviously superior?

The giveaway comes in Stothard's last paragraph, when he writes of "the need for attractive, reliable, wide-ranging, authoritative newspaper titles". Should "attractive" come first in the list?

But what about "wide-ranging" and "reliable"? Are our broadsheets "wide-ranging"? Are they "reliable"?

Stothard's obsession with Stephen Glover and Peregrine Worsthorne, the references to Claridge's and Docklands, his jokey aside about a "junior Sudanese postal minister" (his one reference to the world outside London) is all of a piece. And if you're not in and out of Claridge's, you are too dull.

David Herman
London NW6

This article first appeared in the 04 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The eminence rouge