Amid all the chatter about who may buy the Telegraph Group, the names one hears most often are those of the Daily Mail group, the Express group and Richard Desmond, and the Barclay Brothers. Occasionally various venture capitalists are also mentioned. The one company that is hardly taken seriously, though it appears on most lists of possible bidders, is the American publisher Gannett. And yet Gannett, it seems, is in pole position to buy Hollinger International, whose main titles are the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Telegraph, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Jerusalem Post and last, though not least, The Spectator.
It is not obvious why Gannett should have been virtually ignored by media watchers. The company is the biggest US newspaper and broadcast group, although the only newspaper of any notoriety it owns in America is USA Today. It is also highly acquisitive, and has scooped up dozens of American regional newspapers over the past five years. In this country it bought Newsquest, the second biggest provincial newspaper group, in 1999, and the Scottish Media Group, publisher of the Herald and Evening Times in Glasgow, last year. Gannett is deadly serious about acquiring Hollinger’s titles.
There are several reasons for regarding it as the most likely victor. In the first place it is bigger and more profitable than any of the other bidders, and may well be in a position to pay the largest amount of money. It is able to bid for all of Hollinger’s titles, and not just the British publications. This is attractive to Hollinger since there might be tax liabilities if the newspapers were sold off separately. Perhaps Gannett’s strongest card is that, unlike the Daily Mail group and Richard Desmond, it would not face regulatory hassles in this country. Though it owns many regional titles here, it does not yet have a foothold on the national stage, and would therefore not be referred to the competition authorities. The same holds true in America, where Gannett owns only a single newspaper in Illinois, and could take over the Chicago Sun-Times with impunity.
Would Gannett be a beneficent owner of the Telegraph Group? There is no doubt that it is a highly professional company. Its admirers point out that it kept faith with USA Today for many years after its launch, pouring tens of millions of dollars into the new venture to keep it afloat. The paper is now profitable. But journalists and others at the Telegraph Group would be mistaken in believing that Gannett would similarly throw enormous sums of money in their direction. At both Newsquest and the Scottish Media Group the company has acquired the reputation of a ferocious cost-cutter, while at the same time developing new streams of revenue. Gannett would undoubtedly squeeze costs at the Telegraph Group, though not necessarily to the detriment of its titles.
There are deeper cultural reasons for worrying about Gannett as a prospective owner. What do its directors, based in distant Virginia, know of this country and the Daily Telegraph? In France the law prohibits foreign ownership of newspapers, but not in free-market Britain. It is true that Hollinger International is as North American as Gannett, but it had as its controlling shareholder Conrad Black, an Anglophile who was prepared to defend the Daily Telegraph as a British institution. There is no such figure waiting in the wings at Gannett. My worry is not that the Daily Telegraph would become relentlessly pro-American — it could hardly be more so than it already is — but that a foreign corporate owner might not understand and preserve its peculiar quirks and characteristics. A newspaper is more than just a business, though it must be that first. If Gannett had the publishing pedigree of, say, the New York Times, one might worry less about its foreignness. The truth is that, although highly successful, the company has never owned a quality national newspaper in any country.
In theory, Ofcom, the new media watchdog, is supposed to make a judgment as to what is in the best interests of a newspaper which is up for sale, and even of its staff. So it could question whether being owned by an American publishing group would be the surest way of safeguarding the Daily Telegraph. But my feeling is that it is unlikely to do so since any such judgment is bound to be subjective. Most of the plausible alternative bidders present concrete regulatory problems which really would concern Ofcom. Gannett does have this advantage — that it could, presuming it makes the highest bid, close a deal with Hollinger relatively soon. The Daily Telegraph’s February circulation of 906,317 was the lowest for more than 50 years; the paper’s sales have been affected by the tabloid Times and even by the tabloid Independent. It is certainly in the interests of Hollinger to conclude matters as quickly as possible before any more sales trickle away, though whether Hollinger’s directors sitting in New York are aware of the relative urgency of the situation is not clear. One way and another it seems as though the future of this great British institution will be determined in the United States of America.
Robert Thomson, editor of the Times, recently made a speech in which he defended his paper against the charge that it has dumbed down. In an apparent reference to the upmarket newspaper being planned by colleagues and myself (let me again declare an interest), he said that claims that the quality dailies had dumbed down and betrayed their traditions were based on a very selective analysis of the British press. I think this may have been a dig at me.
It is true that there are many fine things in the Times, but so there are at Tesco. As I was reflecting on what Mr Thomson had said, and wondering whether he might not after all have a point, I picked up the tabloid edition of last Wednesday’s Times. On the front page, below the masthead, the paper advertised the ‘web diary of a call-girl’ and ‘chips, cheese and chocolate — the Amish diet’. Page three was entirely devoted to a story from Los Angeles about stolen body parts. Page five was given over to a piece about vote-rigging and the Oxford Union — surely a diary story. Page seven was taken up with an article about the doppelg