Show Hide image

The Indie’s woes, the end of Sunday papers and what happened to me last week

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

The Food Standards Agency and the Financial Services Authority share the same initials but that is not the only similarity between the banking and horse meat scandals. The finance industry diced up, recombined and repackaged debts so that nobody understood who owed what to whom. The food industry does something similar with animals, vegetables, chemicals, bacteria and anything else you care to name, until nobody knows what they’re eating.

Banks used to lend money to people they met face to face in their communities; they ended up holding debts of people they’d never heard of on the other side of the world. Customers used to buy from tradesmen they knew; now, they deal with supermarket chains and, behind them, multinational food conglomerates. Neither FSA ever had a hope of establishing effective regulation because, in both finance and food, the supply chains are too long, the ultimate locus of responsibility too obscure and everybody involved too adept at blaming someone else.

There was never a golden age, unless you count the 1950s, when British food, though rarely harmful, was too boring to eat. Victorian food and drink – bread, milk, tea, coffee, cheese, wine, ice cream – were heavily adulterated, sometimes with lead. Then, as now, the aim was to keep prices down and maximise profits while making products look better or last longer. More often than not, the shopkeepers tampered with the food. At least customers knew who to blame.

The death of the Sindie

I have long predicted the demise of Sunday papers as distinct titles. Recent developments bear me out: the Independent and Independent on Sunday become part of a seven-day operation under a single editor. The Times and Sunday Times are prevented from doing the same only by Rupert Murdoch’s undertaking to the government, when he took them over in 1981, that they would remain separate titles. Murdoch would ditch the undertaking if the independent directors, appointed under the 1981 deal, allowed him to do so.

The IoS has long relied on the daily repor - ters for much of its copy. Its departed editor, John Mullin, ran a newspaper without the staff to provide news. I was in a similarly anomalous position when I edited the paper 17 years ago. Since then, the digital age has left newspapers with no more need of a separate Sunday editor than a pub has of a separate Sunday landlord.

The Independent’s error was to give its Sunday title, for the launch in 1990, an editor and some 90 staff. If it had opted then for a seven-day operation, it would have been ahead of the game. Instead, its founders, in that era of late Thatcherism, thought they could walk on water.

Keep it in the family

Jonathan Agnew, a cricketer of moderate abilities who became a decent radio commentator, hardly deserves the title of “celebrity”. So far as I know, no journalist ever showed more than a passing interest in his private affairs. Then he goes on Desert Island Discs and blurts out details about how he and his second wife made a “conscious effort” to ensure that the children of her first marriage maintained relationships with their father and how his own ex-wife hadn’t allowed him to do the same with his children. In response, the first Mrs Agnew tells reporters that it’s his own fault and an embarrassing family quarrel is spread all over the papers.

Perhaps, post-Leveson, somebody will adapt Humbert Wolfe’s much-quoted rhyme that: “You cannot hope to bribe or twist . . . the British journalist.” You cannot hope to hack or bug, by law, the British celebrity. But seeing what the man (or woman) will say unhacked, there’s no occasion to.

Mail order

One thing I admire about the Daily Mail is the relentless way it pushes its political agenda. Even the death of the actor Richard Briers provokes a reaffirmation of its belief that “Middle Britain” is oppressed and denigrated by a London-based cultural elite.

“Richard Briers was happily married, decent – and the middle classes loved him. Is that why he was never knighted?” asks a headline. The long piece below the headline does not even discuss the question, much less answer it. However, the point is made, as similar points will be made all the way through to page 94.

Alive and unwell

When the late Jeffrey Bernard couldn’t write his weekly column for a magazine, the name of which escapes me (Peter, it was “Low Life”: ed), he was said to be “unwell”. I fear “Peter Wilby has a stiff neck” wouldn’t carry quite such excitingly raffish connotations. But when you cannot move your neck up or down, or left or right – an affliction that prevented me from writing last week’s First Thoughts – it is surprisingly difficult, bordering on impossible, even to work at a computer screen.

I took my complaint to a GP, who demonstrated the NHS at its best and worst. The best was a simple sheet of exercises that cleared the problem in a day or two (though it may have gone anyway). The worst was a prescription for strong painkillers. I hadn’t complained of unmanageable pain and was content with an occasional paracetamol. I never took the tablets. I wonder how much NHS money goes on drugs that patients don’t want and don’t need.

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 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion