When Robert Thomson was made editor of the Times some 18 months ago he let it be known that he intended to take his paper up-market. There was also good reason to believe that he would not let it be so slavish towards New Labour as it had sometimes been during the long tenure of his predecessor, my old friend Peter Stothard. How has he fared?
The paper's news pages did briefly become more elevated. A couple of new foreign correspondents were hired. No one could have pretended that the transformation was a great one, but something seemed to be going on. Yet in recent months Mr Thomson has gone into reverse gear. Last week the Times thought fit to publish on its front page, above the fold, large pictures of Lady Archer before and after her face-lift. Would even my old friend have done that? During Wimbledon it gave us photographs of Tim Henman practically every day on its front page, not omitting his pretty wife. There are countless examples of dumbing down. Tuesday's Populus poll informed us that 'more than half of voters would not trust Tony Blair further than they could throw him'. What precisely does that mean? Perhaps next month's poll will reveal that 40 per cent of voters would not go tiger shooting with Iain Duncan Smith.
Of course, the leaders and columns remain ring-fenced, as they were under Mr Stothard, but there can be no argument about the news pages. As for features, don't get me started. It seems that Mr Thomson may have panicked. He has seen the sales of his paper dip fractionally in recent months. Hatchet-faced executives have doubtless blamed this decline on Mr Thomson's flirtation with more serious journalism. The sad thing is that he has little choice. The consequence of the Times's reduction of its cover price in 1993 was to attract readers with more down-market tastes. If Mr Thomson were to take his paper too precipitately up-market, he would risk losing these readers. He has inherited a dog's dinner of a newspaper, and there is not much that he can do about it. But Daily Telegraph executives should not be too smug. The other day the paper carried large mugshots of Elton John and Elizabeth Hurley below its masthead. I should also mention that the Times's coverage of the 'Gay Bishop Row' was the best.
Mr Thomson could, I think, be doing more to redress the New Labour bias of the news pages. Four weeks ago, I wrote about the case of the billionaire tycoon, Michael Ashcroft, who seems to have been unjustly persecuted during Mr Stothard's editorship. A central figure in that story was Tom Baldwin, the Times's deputy political editor. Mr Baldwin is a friend of New Labour in general and of Alastair Campbell in particular. Last Friday the paper's second piece on its front page was 'BBC on edge of defeat in Iraq dossier row'. The main byline was Mr Baldwin's. The gist of the story was that the corporation was about to disown its reporter Andrew Gilligan. If Mr Campbell did not have a large role in this nonsense, I am prepared to run from Land's End to John o' Groats.
Nothing has really changed at the Times. I sometimes even wonder whether there has not been a deterioration, and find myself almost wishing for the return of Mr Stothard. He has recently been hawking his new book around the television studios. He was given unprecedented access to Tony Blair man-of-destiny in the weeks leading up to the Iraq war. I must say that my old friend seems to have passed up a tremendous opportunity with his hagiography, which does not quite fulfil the early promise of the fey young man whom I used to see all those years ago, wandering along the banks of the Cherwell with his Virgil clasped tightly in his hand and his kaftan billowing gently in the breeze. On balance, I think we should give Mr Thomson one more chance, though I cannot say I am full of optimism.
Someone should write a history of the relations between the BBC and New Labour. They are now obviously at rock bottom, with Alastair Campbell demanding an apology, and Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, almost threatening to put the licence fee into play.
People forget that Mr Campbell has terrorised the BBC before. In February 1998, when New Labour had been in government for less than a year, he let fly at the BBC, accusing it of being 'a down-market, over-staffed, over-bureaucratic, ridiculous organisation'. This outburst frightened some of its journalists who realised that, like it or not, they would have to do business with New Labour for many years. Mr Blair subsequently got the ideologically sympathetic Greg Dyke appointed as director-general, and the New Labour-friendly Gavyn Davies was made chairman. The appointment as political editor of Andrew Marr, gifted but virtually part of the New Labour project, seemed to complete the process.
Over the years the BBC has not exactly won a reputation as a hammer of New Labour. During successive New Labour scandals, from the Lakshmi Mittal affair to Peter Mandelson's second resignation to Cheriegate, the corporation was slow to follow up newspaper leads for fear of embarrassing the government. Meanwhile the Tories did not always get a fair crack of the whip. Ironically, some senior ministers continued to grumble in private about the BBC's supposed anti-New Labour bias. Without complete obeisance they would never be satisfied.
Now one reporter, Andrew Gilligan, has singlehandedly succeeded in poisoning relations between the government and the BBC by his independent reporting. Mr Campbell has played his hand very poorly. He presumably thought that as he had cowed the BBC before he could do so again, but in this he was mistaken. The BBC felt that its reputation was at stake. Some executives may also have calculated that for the first time New Labour is on the run, and is no longer the power it was.
Will relations ever be restored? Maybe at the highest level. I cannot imagine that Mr Dyke likes being on the wrong side of the Prime Minister. But the many BBC journalists on the ground who have resented New Labour and Alastair Campbell for a long time will not be so easily tamed. My bet is that, as future New Labour scandals and incompetences are exposed in the press, these journalists will no longer spare New Labour as they have sometimes done in the past.
What is one to say about Richard Wild, the 24-year-old inexperienced journalist shot in the head in Baghdad? He was by all reports clever, decent, brave, good. It seems such a waste. What would he have produced had he not been murdered? A few seconds of footage which might, or might not, have flickered on our television screens, and then been forgotten. And yet this is all that journalism ever is. No single article or programme ever makes much difference. It is their cumulative effect which counts. The hundreds of reports which Richard Wild never filed would have made a difference. They were worth taking a risk for. It may be no comfort to his parents and friends, but this young man died in a noble cause.