Ever since he became editor of The Spectator, which must be about five years ago, Boris Johnson has been urging me to write a column about the Financial Times. It is a subject which seems to drive him towards apoplexy. As Boris sees it, the FT is run by leftist énarques whose hearts are very far from the businessman struggling with cashflow problems in Nuneaton or, as it might be, Henley. It is a newspaper for sharp-suited Eurocrats and fat cats on the early morning shuttle to Brussels or Milan, not the hardworking capitalist stuck in his dingy office with the VAT man menacing outside the door.
I am sure he is right. And yet until now I have turned a deaf ear to his diatribes. Perhaps I felt that for all its smugness and dullness and inability to relate to the problems of ordinary businessmen, the Financial Times had at any rate not dumbed down. In a world in which David Beckham and Elizabeth Hurley were regular visitors to the front pages of other quality newspapers, the ‘Pink ’Un’ still ploughed its time-worn furrow of seriousness, offering, for example, celebrity-free foreign coverage. There was even more to it than that. The FT still largely adheres to an old-fashioned belief in objective news. I don’t trust the Independent’s coverage of Iraq (though I share its anti-war sentiments) or the (pro-Blair) political coverage of the Times, but I still mostly trust the FT, except sometimes on the European Union. It has other virtues, such as John Lloyd’s excellent Saturday magazine. Its second section, with its detailed company reports, remains a wonder of journalism.
So I have stayed my hand. The Financial Times still has much to recommend it. (I suppose I should here declare an interest as someone helping to plan an upmarket newspaper, though I hardly think it will compete with the FT.) But for all its residual qualities, the paper clearly has a lot of troubles. Partly these are commercial. It was harder hit than other titles by the advertising recession because of its greater reliance on financial and recruitment advertisements. International sales of the newspaper have soared over the past decade as it has launched an American edition, but its British circulation, which not very long ago stood at nearly 200,000, now has the 100,000 barrier in sight. Some financial readers have migrated to the Internet, where the FT’s on-line version is available at a discount. The paper, which until a couple of years ago had been profitable for as long as anyone could remember, managed to lose £32 million in 2003, though cost-cutting and improved advertising revenues should produce much better figures this year.
One can’t help feeling that, despite all the strengths I have mentioned, the paper’s worst problems are editorial. It is very difficult to find anyone outside its senior editorial staff who has a positive word to say about it. Traditional readers grumble that it has become sensational. Some say that it has dumbed-down (the use of a doctored front-page picture a year ago is recalled by many). With three times as many foreign sales as British ones, the FT can no longer really be described as a British newspaper at all. Its heart, if it has one, is partly in Brussels, partly in America, and only fleetingly in this country. No wonder the businessman in Nuneaton feels that it does not cater for his needs. Its leading articles are a curious mixture of misplaced superiority and dullness, while its columnists, with only a couple of exceptions, recite Blairite commonplaces as though they were pearls of wisdom.
The FT’s great historical mistake was not to reposition itself as a general upmarket newspaper to take the place of the dumbed-down Times. Instead it embarked upon its international expansion as a financial title from which there would seem to be no line of retreat. If ever a paper stood in need of a proprietor or an inspired publisher to offer a guiding hand, it is the FT. All it has is Marjorie Scardino, the American chief executive of Pearson, the conglomerate that owns the paper. Mrs Scardino repeats the formula that the Financial Times is not for sale and that it will return to profitability soon. I wonder on both counts. It may not be sold as long as she remains in charge of Pearson, but as soon as she is gone, in a year or two, it very probably will be. Some of the groups that failed to buy the Telegraph Group are already sizing up the FT. They see a still formidable newspaper that stands in need of an overhaul.
During Conrad Black’s proprietorship, the Daily Telegraph was an enthusiastic and, so some of us thought, sometimes too indulgent defender of the Israeli regime. His wife, Barbara Amiel, was a particular stalwart. How times have changed.
Last Saturday, the paper’s foreign editor, Alan Philps, wrote an article about the controversial cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has been visiting Britain. Most people seem to agree that the sheikh is not an out-and-out extremist on the Osama bin Laden model. However, his views are not such as would win him a round of applause at a LibDem party conference. He abominates homosexuality, and is said to recommend the death penalty for gays. He thinks that beating is ‘suitable for certain wives’ though ‘for other wives it is not’. He is in favour of suicide bombings against Jews, although very generously he believes that ‘Jews not in conflict with Muslims should not be killed’.
In former times the Daily Telegraph would have given this old horror both barrels. But Mr Philps, who saw Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in action, portrayed him as a sort of Muslim Rowan Williams speaking over the heads of a rather bored audience who had yearned for some genuine rabble-rousing. No doubt this was an entirely accurate account. The sheikh is evidently a bit of a bore as well as a lunatic. But does this almost sympathetic article mark a shift in the Telegraph’s coverage of the Middle East?
The BBC has announced a review of BBC1, whose programmes are believed by some viewers to have plumbed new depths of dumbing-down. They are weary of the mix of game shows, soaps, reality shows and repeats which the channel now churns out.
On Tuesday Mark Thompson, the BBC’s new director-general, defended BBC1 against its critics. He said that the process to which it is being subjected is nothing special, and that other parts of the Corporation will undergo similar reviews. Mr Thompson is said to be an educated and highly intelligent man, and it would be nice to believe that he was merely smoothing the ruffled feathers of the dumbers-down before, when the time comes, wringing their necks. But I don’t know how much confidence we should have in a man who, as the recently departed chief executive of Channel 4, is responsible for the current series of Big Brother, which is the most grotesque yet to be unleashed. Something awful often happens to very clever and well-educated people when they join mainstream television. Don’t count on a Reithian revolution.