On Tuesday the Culture Secretary Maria Miller announced to a breathless world the latest development in the Leveson saga. The government wants a royal charter to oversee a new press watchdog. I say ‘the government’, but the Liberal Democrats are only half on board. Like Labour, they seem still to hanker after some sort of statute to set Leveson in stone. As for Hacked Off, the celebrity-backed pressure group that has campaigned for greater press regulation, it will settle for nothing less than a statute, and wants every recommendation made by Lord Justice Leveson to be implemented without delay.
On the day Mrs Miller did her little turn in the Commons, a once successful Sunday newspaper was closed. Almost no one noticed. This may have been because the newspaper in question, the Independent on Sunday, is now selling so few copies (58,809 full-price sales per issue last month) that not many people are likely to get worked up about its demise. It is also true that its closure was not represented as such by its owners (the Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev, and his son Evgeny) or management. A murky and obfuscating statement was issued such as might have emerged from an ailing Soviet tractor factory with production problems in the days when Alexander Lebedev was serving as a young KGB officer. There would be ‘a programme that commences a complete restructuring of the way we intend to create and publish our content’.
The Independent on Sunday will admittedly continue in name. That is to say, there will be a seventh-day version of the Independent. But it will have no staff of its own, and no editor. Bean counters have long advocated sharing journalists on Sunday and daily titles to save costs, but this is not so much an integration as an annihilation. The plucky little Sindy, which I helped to found 23 years ago, is no more. Its editor of five years, the admirable John Mullin, who conjured up a spirited and strikingly original Sunday newspaper out of almost non-existent resources, is to be replaced by the Independent’s editor, Chis Blackhurst, nicknamed ‘Baldemort’ by his fans because of his alleged physical resemblance to J.K. Rowling’s fictional baddie, Lord Voldemort.
It is tempting to tease the Lebedevs, though one should not go too far. They are unquestionably a colourful pair. Alexander, allegedly a billionaire, is awaiting trial in Russia on a charge of hooliganism. (He biffed an annoying businessman during a television programme.) Evgeny, chairman of the Independent titles and the London Evening Standard, is an earnest and intelligent young man. Some of his counterparts in Fleet Street may think that he knows no more about newspapers than they do about tractor factories, but he is learning. Besides, he has a very able managing director called Andrew Mullins. The Lebedevs have sunk some £80 million in their British newspapers over four years, and brought the once heavily loss-making Standard to break-even after making it free. But the Indy and Sindy continue to lose bucketfuls of money — probably around £18 million a year — hence the killing off of the Sunday title.
So one can’t really blame them. Whether they can now save the Independent is an open question. Its real daily sale is not much over 50,000. It’s quite a good paper, with lots of good writers, but fewer and fewer people want to read it. By contrast, i — a boiled-down version of the Indy that sells at 20 pence — is a circulation success, selling more than four times as many copies. The London Evening Standard looks like a commercial proposition, and might even be saleable. (Some on the Independent claim that their paper bears a disproportionate amount of the giveaway’s costs.) Alexander Lebedev was recently quoted as saying that his British operation will return a net profit of ‘between £12 and £18 million in two and a half years’. It sounds a fantastically implausible figure. He is evidently placing a lot of faith in his as yet unlaunched London Live local TV channel, which aims to put the Standard’s journalists on the capital’s television screens — potentially a recipe for disaster in the light of similar past experiments. I’d say the rocky road continues to stretch ahead.
What has happened to the dear old Sindy is being copied only slightly less dramatically throughout Fleet Street. The assassin of the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch, will integrate the Times and Sunday Times as soon as he can persuade the former’s so-called independent directors that such a move would not negate his 1981 undertaking to maintain the two newspapers as separate titles. The Daily and Sunday Mirror have recently merged to save costs. The upshot is that we have fewer, and weaker, papers. Meanwhile the Guardian racks up losses which make the Independent’s look like small change. It has a fighting fund in the shape of a 50 per cent stake in Auto Trader, the classified car advertising business, though it was recently unable to off-load this at the price it had sought.
I don’t imagine that everyone will share my grief at the loss of the Sindy as a separate title. But it is surely clear that where it has gone, others will inevitably follow, possibly quite soon. That is why I could only work up moderate interest in Maria Miller’s statement on Tuesday. The important news of the day was the effective demise of a national newspaper which in its heyday sold over 400,000 copies. This obsession with Leveson is a kind of madness. Of course, Leveson and his camp followers played no part in the death of the Independent on Sunday. But while a collection of self-serving celebrities, newspaper-hating politicians, well-intentioned do-gooders and general half-wits are obsessing about regulating the press, the monster which they say they want to tame is gasping for breath, and slowly dying. The amazing thing is that they appear not to have noticed. Or perhaps they simply don’t care.
Stephen Glover is a columnist on the Daily Mail.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 16 February 2013