First Thoughts: A new Sunday Times editor, 1917, and why England’s cricketers are no world-beaters

Emma Tucker’s appointment as Sunday Times editor means that a record five national newspapers are now edited by women. 

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The HS2 rail line – the future of which Boris Johnson is expected to decide shortly – may now cost £106bn against an original budget of £32.7bn. By the standards of such projects, the 324 per cent cost overrun is modest. The Suez Canal, completed in 1869, overran its costs by 1,900 per cent, the Scottish parliament building by 1,600 per cent, the Sydney Opera House by 1,400 per cent.

Most megaprojects also suffer long delays and, if completed, fail to produce the economic benefits predicted. According to Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at Oxford University’s Said Business School, the Channel Tunnel (80 per cent cost overrun; minus 14.5 per cent return on investment) “has detracted from the British economy instead of adding to it”. Flyvbjerg estimates that only one in a thousand megaprojects deliver the promised benefits on time and on budget.

UK projects do no worse than other countries’, nor does the public sector do worse than the private. Failure is inbuilt: big projects won’t be commissioned unless they are affordable and speedy, so contractors massage the data to make them seem so. Once a project is under way everyone employed has an interest in concealing the truth until the cancellation costs – an estimated £12bn for HS2 – themselves become daunting.

Perhaps politicians and corporate chiefs should ask themselves, before approving projects, whether they would still give the go-ahead if the costs were twice as high, the delivery time twice as long and the benefits half those predicted.

Under new management

Emma Tucker’s appointment as Sunday Times editor means that a record five national newspapers are now edited by women. Curiously, only one, Victoria Newton at the Sun on Sunday, edits a Sunday tabloid. Newspaper managements once regarded this as the most suitable position for women – for example, the Sunday Mirror has had four female editors, one of them for two separate stints –  since Sunday tabloids mostly feature sex, celebrities and glamour and carry little serious news. Now women are at the helm of the largely glamour-free Financial Times and Guardian, as well as the Economist magazine.

Some strongholds of male supremacy remain, however: the Daily Mail and its Sunday sister have never had a woman editor, nor has the Daily Telegraph. No woman ever got to the top at the Telegraph-owned Spectator either. Nor, er, at the New Statesman (except an acting editor for seven months).

Real chronology

It may seem odd to praise a film about the First World War for being relaxing. But that was how I found Sam Mendes’s 1917. Unlike, for example, Little Women, another recent film release, it had no flashbacks. 1917 is presented as a straightforward sequential narrative, with the interesting cinematic illusion of it being taken in a single shot. I hope it sets a trend.

I find the now almost routine use of time shifts and dream sequences in films exhausting, confusing and increasingly tiresome. Sometimes such devices have a point; more often, they don’t. After the campaigns for real ale, real bread and real education, perhaps I should launch a campaign for real chronology.

Beaten and underpaid

England’s cricketers beat South Africa in this winter’s Test series, but they should not be hailed as world-beaters. South Africa fielded what was almost a second XI. They cannot afford to pay several of their biggest talents, at least 11 of whom play for English counties and are, therefore, barred from playing for South Africa. An association agreement gives South Africans the same freedoms to work here as EU citizens. They may lose such rights after Brexit. But it would be better if the leading cricket nations – India, England and Australia – shared more equitably the TV revenues of international cricket rather than snaffling so much for themselves.

Swap you

Donald Trump likes deals. What about this one? We’ll send Prince Andrew for questioning if they send us Anne Sacoolas, the US diplomat’s wife whose car fatally injured a young motorcyclist in Britain last year. 

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 appears in the 29 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out