When a deaf ear is an editor's best friend


I have been thinking about the relations between editors and newspaper proprietors, and you will know why. The owner of the New Statesman is Geoffrey Robinson, the much-troubled Paymaster-General. (The proverbial returnees from desert islands will find a brief resume of his troubles on page 5.) Robinson, whom I have met no more than half a dozen times, is the most hands-off proprietor imaginable. In my five months as editor he has not issued a single editorial instruction - and since, as a minister, he is required to put his interests in a blind trust, he cannot properly do so. But neither did he issue any orders to my predecessor when he (Robinson) was still in opposition. Quite possibly, I could publish a ringing denunciation of his behaviour and continue undisturbed in my present position.

I shall not do so, however, for a very simple reason: any criticism whatever in the pages of the NS would acquire a significance quite out of proportion to our circulation or influence. You can imagine the headlines and the Tory glee: even the Paymaster-General's own paper, they would chortle, cannot support him. Equally, I shall not publish any defence of Robinson because it would be assumed that I had done it on his orders. The dailies, indeed, already assume a level of manipulation that would require our owner to be almost constantly in the office. For example, last week's issue, according to Londoner's Diary in the Evening Standard, "dismisses the notion that Tony Blair is a control freak" because Robinson wants to persuade the Prime Minister not to sack him. A month or so ago, the Times diary suggested we had run a profile of that historic left rendezvous, the Gay Hussar restaurant, because Robinson was thinking of buying it. I have been around long enough to know that most Fleet Street diaries nowadays are like bad dinner-party conversations - ill-informed, prejudiced and boring - and that in any event these are supposed to be harmless jokes. My own joke, in that case, is that journalists on the Evening Standard and the Times are so accustomed to being told what to write that they cannot conceive of the existence of independent journalism.

Which brings me to the wider question of the relations between owners and editors. The conventional wisdom argues that newspapers are best run by trusts, such as the one that oversees the Guardian, or by boards accountable to shareholders, as was the Independent at its launch. The newspaper company where one man - a Conrad Black or a Rupert Murdoch - has a controlling interest is thought to be a Bad Thing. And certainly I agree about Murdoch, mainly because his business interests are so wide as to inhibit straight reporting on subjects as diverse as the Chinese government, Hollywood films and Manchester United.

But it need not be like that. Roy Thomson, who owned the Sunday Times until his death in 1976 and presided over its golden age under Denis Hamilton and Harold Evans, had extensive business interests - in package holidays and North Sea oil, for example. Yet he never complained if those interests were damaged, as they sometimes were, by Sunday Times reporting. Under Thomson the Sunday Times flourished far more than the Independent and its Sunday sister did under the Mirror Group, a shareholder company, in the 1990s. David Montgomery, the Mirror Group's chief executive, never dictated political content - or even, so far as I could detect when I edited the Sunday paper, read the leaders or the political comment. But in obedience to the chronic short-termism of British shareholders, he cut budgets to the extent that the papers' independence became pointless.

That showed the weakness of a shareholder company: it put profit before long-term editorial health. Are there also hidden weaknesses in trusts? Not as such, perhaps. Yet the Observer, when I worked there from 1968 to 1975, seemed strangely inhibited. It was run by a trust but, in effect, David Astor was both editor and proprietor. Since he was independently wealthy and was also just about the most truly liberal-minded man I have ever met, it ought to have been an ideal arrangement. But the Observer was vulnerable to a special kind of pressure: from the liberal establishment, comprising the BBC, the London School of Economics, the Race Relations Board and the like. It was not that Astor always gave way to pressure - sometimes he did, more often he didn't - but that members of the liberal establishment would confidently threaten an unco-operative reporter with a word in his ear. A reporter knew that Astor, the most courteous of men, would listen and that sometimes he would be inclined to accept the complainants' version of events because they were, well, gentlemen like him.

And that is and always will be the biggest threat to independent journalism: friendship, cronyism, club membership, a shared school or college or class background. The Express is now, in some ways, a less independent paper than it was under Lord Beaverbrook (who also, incidentally, held ministerial office while owning a paper, but never lost his taste for mischief) because its proprietor, Lord Hollick, seems too friendly with certain sections of new Labour.

I used to think that some forms of press ownership were better than others; now, I'm not so sure. Everything depends on individuals, on whether the people who run newspapers really want to be bloody-minded on behalf of their readers. I cannot speak for Geoffrey Robinson, but my own broad rule is not to join clubs, to attend parties only sparingly and to reject all invitations to reunions. I am also, as most of London knows, rather deaf. So if you were planning a quiet word in my ear, forget it.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, How the left hijacked the family