Watching brief - Peter Wilby smells smoke over Gleneagles
We must all hope, for the sake of newspaper sales and the anti-globalisation movement, that Scotland
With the election over, the papers are struggling for a news agenda. The EU constitution crisis is too boring, the Tory leadership too irrelevant and Iraq too old a story. But one big event is looming and editors are already licking their lips. This is the G8 summit at Gleneagles in July. The NS, Guardian and Independent regard it as a crucial meeting for resolving world poverty and global warming. Other papers look forward to riot, chaos and confrontation.
On 29 May, for example, the Sunday Times reported that "anarchists" plan to block the roads to Gleneagles with burning lorries, tyres, telegraph poles and trees, so that interpreters and civil servants will be unable to reach the summit. They also plan to "storm" the Royal Bank of Scotland in Edinburgh and to launch "surprise raids" from Dunblane. An "undercover reporter" had gleaned all this from a "conference" in Nottingham, a "training weekend" in Glasgow and a "military-style camp" in Lanarkshire. I am surprised that anarchists go in for any of these things, but I do not doubt the report's authenticity.
I am reminded, though, of when Peter Hain, barely out of his teens, was leading opposition to the proposed cricket tour of a team from apartheid South Africa in 1970. I was then a reporter on the Observer and rang Hain to say I needed a story for that Sunday's paper. We met for lunch and Hain mused about non-violent ways of stopping a cricket match, which included releasing mice on to the pitch. I had my story, which led page three.
The tour was called off, so Hain never had to prove that mice could disrupt a cricket match, which I somehow doubt. The organisers of the anti-Vietnam war march in London the previous year were less fortunate. "Extremists", it was reported, were plotting to "seize" key centres, including the BBC. Nothing of the sort was attempted and the march was pronounced a flop, despite a high turnout. The anti-war movement in this country never recovered. We must all hope, for the sake both of newspaper sales and of the anti-globalisation movement, that Scotland is, as promised, shrouded in black smoke in July.
Will the former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan make a good proprietor? He and a consortium are buying the Press Gazette, the journalists' trade magazine. The precedents are not encouraging. Journalists do not make good business people or managers. David Montgomery, another former tabloid editor, was a bad chief executive for the Mirror and Independent titles because, though he could cut costs, he could not develop a long-term vision. Andrew Neil, an outstanding Sunday Times editor who now runs the Barclay brothers' media portfolio (though not the Telegraph papers), does have visions, but very strange ones: the European became anti-Europe (and duly closed), and the Scotsman became anti-Scotland, or at least anti-devolution. I am surprised the Barclays allow him so much leeway, but perhaps, like everyone else, they are too terrified to confront him.
There are two problems with journalists as business managers. First, they are used to thinking from issue to issue, on a daily or, at best, weekly timescale, whereas business bosses need to think years ahead. Second, journalists are egotists and bad delegators who will never allow editors the independence they need. It is no coincidence that both Montgomery and Neil set records for turnover of editors at their titles. (Interest declared: I was one of those sacked by Montgomery.)
When I edited the NS, some readers would complain that certain adverts - for banks or cars, say - were inappropriate for a left-wing magazine. My reply was simple. There was a wall between advertising and editorial: they didn't interfere with us, nor we with them. Despite occasional rumbles from advertisers - Marks & Spencer recently stopped advertising in the Mail papers because of critical coverage - this rule applies fairly consistently across the mainstream press.
Nevertheless, it was brave of the Independent to splash "the real cost of air travel" across pages one and two on Saturday 28 May. It highlighted the cost in greenhouse gases of various flights, pointing out, for example, that after one return flight to Athens a passenger would need to go without heating, cooking, lighting and car travel for nearly three years to make up for the impact on the environment. This was brave not only because Saturday is the peak day for travel advertising, but also because the Independent, with its young, mobile readership, is a market leader in featuring cheap flights.
Hypocrisy? How many greens can say they have never made an unnecessary, gas-emitting journey? Do not set higher standards for your newspaper than you set for yourself.
Amanda Platell is away