Last weekend the Observer media page published a photograph of the Daily Telegraph news conference. It looks to me a pretty standard affair. The camera shows the back of the editor, Martin Newland, who is hunched over his desk and appears energetic and keen. There are eight other senior executives in the room, all of them apparently middle-aged, if by that we mean between the ages of 35 and 55. Two of them are women. Everyone looks dutiful and alert.
It is a scene such as one might imagine in any newspaper office, though in some you would be lucky to find as many as two female executives. But to Alan Geere, a lecturer in journalism at the University of Westminster, who was asked by the Observer to analyse the photograph, the news conference illustrates all that is wrong with the Daily Telegraph. He points out that four of the men are grey-haired and that two of them are bald. Two women in his view make up an inexcusably small contingent. The ageist, baldist lecturer suggests that the meeting is rather regimented, with the executives having ‘little opportunity for input’. (Has he ever been at a news conference? The executives are in fact telling the editor about the stories that are going into the newspaper.) Mr Geere’s conclusion is that ‘the Telegraph needs an injection of new blood. Different faces, fresh ideas and a willingness to embrace diverse opinions are what distinguish innovative and exciting news conferences — and the papers they produce.’
Ugh! Mr Geere’s views about the Telegraph are probably shared by many people who often have something in common. They almost never read the paper, and sometimes despise those people who do. They think that Michael Hartwell’s Daily Telegraph — I mean the pre-1986 newspaper — was narrow and boring, though in fact it had the best news coverage, was generally fair and balanced, and sold many more copies than the modern Daily Telegraph does. I must not attribute views to Mr Geere which he may not hold, but there are many people whose dislike of the Telegraph is based on its being insufficiently like the Guardian.
Ever since Max Hastings took over the editorship of the paper in 1986 it has been modernising. No doubt it has been right to do so. In some respects it had grown sclerotic in the latter Hartwell years. Society changes, and newspapers must change or they will die. But the modernisers have not been entirely successful. Mr Geere probably does not realise it, because he may not read the newspaper, but the Telegraph has been trying to appeal to younger and more ‘diverse’ readers for the past 18 years. Yet it still has a much higher proportion of older readers, and a smaller proportion of younger ones, than any other broadsheet newspaper.
Perhaps this should be regarded as a strength rather than a weakness. People are living longer. The ‘grey pound’ is becoming increasingly attractive to advertisers. Young people do become older, and their tastes in newspapers can change. The greatest threat to the Daily Telegraph lies in its not attending to the needs of its core readers. I hope this is clear to the prospective purchasers of the newspaper, whose bids have to be lodged by 20 May.
Axel Springer, the German publishing conglomerate, is now the front-runner in many people’s estimation. It is apparently favoured by the Telegraph’s senior management, partly because it is indicating less draconian cost-cutting than many of the other bidders, and partly because, unlike rival suitors, it seems not to have its own management team in waiting, and therefore might keep on the incumbents. My worry about Axel Springer is not so much that it has a clause in its constitution which commits the company to working for the unification of the European people — surely that could be waived in the case of the Telegraph — but that it might listen to the advice of people like Mr Geere, who think that the newspaper is fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned, too narrowly right-wing, and so forth. The German publisher does not have its own cultural compass in this country: that is its problem. I can think of no British newspaper group that would be qualified to make a success of owning the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Why should we have any confidence that a German group knows what to do with the Daily Telegraph?
It now seems certain that the photographs of British soldiers, which were published two weeks ago by the Daily Mirror, were fakes. They appear to have been ‘mocked up’ at a barracks in Lancashire by members of the Territorial Army. The four-ton Bedford MK lorry in which the pictures were taken was at Kimberley barracks in Preston, not Iraq.
Last week the Daily Mirror came close to admitting that the photographs were not genuine. Since then there have been several authentic stories of torture, some of them apparently involving British troops, and the Mirror has hardened its position on the pictures. Piers Morgan, the paper’s editor, evidently believes that his error will somehow be set aside as it becomes clear how widespread the use of torture in Iraq has been. He may be right. The old rogue could survive after all.
In a way the behaviour of the Sun has been almost as bad. The paper, which is fanatically pro-war, has almost entirely ignored the stories about torture. Those of its readers who do not watch the television news may be unaware that anything is amiss. Anything that might in any way besmirch the pro-war cause must be kept out of the newspaper. The Sun’s sole preoccupation has been to debunk its rival, the Daily Mirror, for publishing photographs that appear to be fakes.
The BBC has concluded its internal investigation into the events following Andrew Gilligan’s broadcast on 29 May last year. It has now decided that Mr Gilligan was gravely at fault for asserting that the government had ‘sexed up’ its dossier. But, miracle of miracles, no one else at the BBC appears to have behaved badly. It is all poor Gilligan’s fault.
If so, why did the BBC spring to his defence after the broadcast? If Mr Gilligan was right then, he is right now. If he was wrong then, then the BBC was equally at fault for defending him. This is a bureaucratic stitch-up by an organisation that was overcome by an uncharacteristic fit of bravery and independence, and has now returned to its more familiar role of protecting itself and kowtowing to the powers that be.
Sunday newspapers are famous for exaggerating supposed scares. I have not come across a better example than the first paragraph of a front-page story in last Sunday’s Observer: ‘Thousands of Britons may be forced to wear charcoal masks and stay indoors this summer to avoid deadly fogs of ozone that will pollute the country during heatwaves, scientists have warned.’
If I see a single ‘charcoal mask’, I will send a jeroboam of champagne to the editor of the Observer.