This week, I bid farewell to newspapers. I am leaving the editorship of the London Evening Standard to someone who can solve newspaper finances and am going to join BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. The tradition of being banged out is shared by journalists and prisoners; indeed, some journalists have crossed categories. It is a joyously unruly sound, an expression of what I have loved in newspapers.
The resistance to regulation is instinctive in the newspaper tribe. Yet some newspaper journalists are now calling for regulation of the internet. This is marvellous cant, at which newspapers excel. We have watched with pure envy both the freedom and the money move from print to social media.
It is tiring fighting for survival but, once more, print must find a way to reinvent its purpose. We have become timid even of describing ourselves as the press. I sat through a “tomorrow industry” session at which we were advised to categorise ourselves as a data company rather than a newspaper. In the spirit of mockery, a photograph flashed up on the screen of an old Standard newspaper bill. It read: “Man in space”. I was suffused with love for it, but then I have witnessed the internet revolution and remember when the front page of the Standard was unchallenged and the cries of the vendors floated across London’s evening air: “Read all about it! West End final! Headless corpse in theatreland! Read all about it!” What newspapers still have is a bunch of clever, fun people who can put together a first draft of history that is passably correct. That is something.
When I rejoined the Evening Standard eight years ago, it was in crisis. I didn’t realise it then – or why would I have come back? – but the newspaper was losing nearly £30m a year and it had somehow lost the goodwill of its readership. Under the new ownership of Evgeny Lebedev and the editorship of Geordie Greig, we made it friendlier and we made it free. We became troupers, unsure whether we would still be in work by the end of the week but determined to put on a good show until then.
That mindset is what got us through the choppy years. We integrated with the Independent, then dis-integrated. We increased our circulation from 200,000 to 900,000. We realised that being small, agile, innovative, hard-working and optimistic was a winning formula. Uncertainty can be the making of you. Brexit will take place in a similar time frame, and I fervently hope that creative chaos can work as well for the country as it did for the Standard.
Name the game
One issue I never resolved at the newspaper was the consistent use in print of first or second names. In a spirit of feminism, I asked our production team to explain why women were usually captioned with their first name while men generally went by their last name. It is not so simple. Calling an actress or model – both hog the picture slots in newspapers – by their second name can seem like a rebuke. “Delevingne parties all night” seems stuffy.
The London mayors Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan are largely on first-name terms in the newspaper headlines, partly for instant identification and partly because of their celebrity. I tried to inject distance by changing both to second names whenever I could. The claim made by the production chief was that first names are usually shorter, so easier for headlines. I never tested this scientifically, but it is not the case with our Prime Minister, nor with the new Met commissioner, though her surname brings its own sensitivities.
Voices in your head
I am asked what the difference is between print and radio. The Today programme seems to me to be the nearest thing to a newspaper: high impact but eclectic. But there are clearly different skills, which will take time to learn. One example is the broadcast convention of the production team talking into the earpiece of a presenter. On a newspaper, the editor will brief an interviewer and occasionally do a joint interview if it’s a swanky subject. But you would not crash into a room in which an interview was taking place, as if you were the detective inspector from Line of Duty. And in the interests of balance, shouldn’t interviewees be allowed earpieces, too? The whole process reminds me what a tightrope live interviewing is and how much pressure is on the presenters. Don’t they do a grand job?
The BBC has been described as something between church and Post Office, and it takes time to fathom its structure and ethos. I find it helpful to remember that Today comes under the news department but sits within BBC Radio 4. Its apparently illogical positioning is crucial to its character. It is news, but with a hinterland. It is woven into people’s lives and the relationship is conversational rather than just informational.
This relationship can be dangerous. But I took my life in my hands to have lunch with Charles Moore, my old friend and boss. I was deputy editor at the Daily Telegraph when he was editor, and his ability to scent bias at the BBC has not worn off in the intervening years. I told him triumphantly that I’d thought of a way round this: I intended to introduce more items about nature and the countryside, which are reconciling rather than divisive. Birds, for instance.
Charles’s eyes narrowed. What about the anti-shooting lobby? Fish, then! Ah, that can be an attack on land ownership. Trees aren’t much easier: the arguments about bio-security and borders make the immigration debate seem civil. Remember the cause that did for the talented former editor of Today Rod Liddle? It was the Countryside Alliance, championed, of course, by Charles Moore. There’s no safe hiding place for us at Today.
Sarah Sands is a former editor of the London Evening Standard and the new editor of “Today” on BBC Radio 4
This article appears in the 26 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On