Watching brief - Peter Wilby disses the archbishop

With the sacking of Dominic Lawson at the <em>Sunday Telegraph</em>, nearly all the public editors h

The decline of the public intellectual - the person of intellectual distinction who plays a significant role in public affairs - has often been commented on. Less noticed is the decline of the public editor. By that I mean a newspaper editor whose primary aspiration is to shape political opinion. He or she (though we are nearly always talking men here) is likely to have some public profile, probably as a columnist or broadcaster. He is also likely to have a background in political, economic or foreign journalism. But what matters most is that everybody knows his opinions. He has his political agenda and it shows in his paper.

Recent examples include Simon Jenkins (the Times), Andrew Neil (Sunday Times), Will Hutton (the Observer), Peregrine Worsthorne (the Sunday Telegraph), Max Hastings (the Daily Telegraph and the London Evening Standard), Charles Moore (the Sunday and Daily Telegraphs) and possibly Rosie Boycott (the two Independents and the Daily Express).

With the sacking of Dominic Lawson from the Sunday Telegraph, nearly all the public editors have gone. I doubt we shall see their like again. Lawson is a former Financial Times writer and Spectator editor. Many journalists and politicians said his paper was the best of the Sundays. They meant it was the most serious and political. Any news of the Conservative Party got front-page treatment. Christopher Booker had a whole weekly page to expose the iniquities of the EU. Page three of the news section - normally used by Sunday papers for a "lighter" read, often with a celebrity angle - was devoted to subjects such as foetal abduction, headlined: "I was drugged, cut open with a razor

and my baby was stolen from my womb".

Lawson's attempts to "lighten up" could be almost comically inept: at one time the editor of the Fortean Times, which specialises in monster sightings, alien abductions and psychic encounters, occupied a weekly half-page slot. And the less said about the Sunday Telegraph's pictures, the better.

Lawson's successor, Sarah Sands, is a former diary and features editor. She is also a columnist - nearly everybody is nowadays - who has sometimes expressed political views. But she has already told the Guardian: "I'm interested in politics . . . but I don't feel I'm part of it." Most current Fleet Street editors would probably say something similar. At the Guardian and Observer, Alan Rusbridger and Roger Alton are from features backgrounds, though the former was briefly a Washington correspondent. The Independent's Simon Kelner was a sports editor. The political views of all three are opaque.

Some will see all this as evidence of dumbing down. I don't - the Independent is hardly a dumb paper. Rather, it is evidence of the growing power of marketing departments: I suspect Lawson was fired because his paper was deemed unmarketable. And that, in turn, is evidence of the steep decline, among even the broadsheet-reading public, of interest in conventional politics.

Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, kindly quoted this column, with implicit approval, in a speech on the media on 15 June. So I hope it will not seem churlish to disagree with his call for a more high-minded journalism that aims to "nurture public communication in a mature democracy".

I prefer Lord Beaverbrook's question to aspiring journalists: "Do you want to make mischief?" Mischief consists of embarrassing the powerful and challenging established wisdom wherever possible. You don't find much of it in American papers, which explains why they were so hopeless at questioning the Bush administration's policies after 9/11 and why internet bloggers and "shock jock" broadcasters have done so well in the US. British newspapers are better, but not mischievous enough. They may embarrass politicians, but politicians aren't so powerful any more.

Williams invites us to "consider situations in which the reporting for an uninstructed public of views or proposals during a period of difficult negotiation will undoubtedly skew or wreck the negotiating process". To which the only answer - ignoring the patrician "uninstructed" - is that it depends on what is being negotiated. Where the police request a news blackout on a kidnapping that involves a ransom demand, the papers nearly always agree. Where there are "difficult negotiations" over, say, a country's possession of WMDs, journalists will publish leaks.

It could be argued that to "skew or wreck" such negotiations is to risk death, destruction and war. Maybe. As we know from Iraq, neither side may be negotiating in good faith. Once journalists agree to "consider" their "responsibilities", they become censors and will lose public trust to a far greater degree than they already have.

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