Alex Massie

Transatlantic Differences | 15 June 2008

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The Atlantic has a very interesting, unintentionally hilarious Mark Bowden piece on Rupert Murdoch's plans for the Wall Street Journal. Apparently the newsroom is very troubled by the new proprietor's insistence that reporters uncover "scoops". Heaven forbid!

This also made me laugh:

“I think he has enough sense not to trash what makes the newspaper so valuable,” said Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute. “He has owned The Times of London for more than 20 years, and it is still a serious newspaper.”

Serious, perhaps, but few Londoners would argue that the newspaper is anything like what it once was. Robert Block, a veteran Journal reporter who now covers the space beat for the Orlando Sentinel, worked for The Times in the late 1990s—more than a decade after Murdoch effectively dragged it from its pinnacle as the leading British newspaper and turned it into a hustling tabloid engaged in an incessant battle for sensational scoops. As a correspondent in South Africa, Block ran headlong into the consequences of that transformation. His editor insisted one day that he get an unsupervised interview with a 10-year-old boy at the center of an international custody dispute. Every newspaper in London was gunning for the story. Block knew where the boy was, outside Johannesburg, and knew that his parents were not at home.

“Do you have kids?” he asked his editor.

“Yes,” the man said.

“How would you feel if a reporter came after your child without approaching you first?”

“Look,” he recalls his editor saying. “It’s not your fucking kid and it’s not my fucking kid. Now go do your fucking job.”

Block refused, and quit.

I think every editor I've ever worked for would have had a similar attitude. And if The Times isn't the paper it once was (it's read by more people to begin with), Britain isn't the same country either. Papers have to move with the times, no matter how much journalists - an instinctively conservative bunch when it comes to instituional changes - might like to wish it otherwise. Just as well Mr Block quit, otherwise he might well have been fired...

(Oh, and The Times is published in tabloid format these days, but it isn't a tabloid. Also, this "Murdoch dragged it from its pinnacle..." stuff, well, he bought the paper after a print union strike ensured it had not appeared for an entire year, giving the competition plenty of time to move in on the Times' readership. Bottom line: most newspapers would be better off with Murdoch than their current ownership.)

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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