Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 920 - 939)


Mr Andrew Marr and Mr Dominic Lawson

  Q920  Chairman: What happened when he went?

  Mr Lawson: A very different situation arises because you have people who do not have an intuitive feel for the paper and its culture; but, again, I do not think that the Barclays are actively interventionist. If you take the model of the interventional proprietor as being Robert Maxwell, which we all know about, they are right at the other end of that sort of spectrum. I could count on the fingers of one hand—and actually quite a badly mutilated hand—how many times I had what I would call a serious intervention by the owners, and I could go into it if you want to. But I suspect that it would surprise the Members of your Committee how little intervention there was even from someone like Conrad Black who is a man with very pronounced opinions.

  Q921  Chairman: You give the impression that you were left, under both owners, to edit entirely to your discretion?

  Mr Lawson: Yes. As I said, I could give you if you wanted, chapter and verse, the very rare instances when that did not happen, as long as you understand that it was extraordinarily rare. Essentially I think that what happens is that newspaper proprietors/owners, or people who think they are as Andrew rightly puts it, will appoint an editor and that will be informed possibly by their world view or what they want, and thereafter the editor is essentially sovereign, which I think is a good system; and of course the editor can be fired and, as you say, it can happen in a very brutal fashion. But when he is editing he is editing and not the proprietor.

  Q922  Chairman: And there was no one between the proprietor up there and the editor? No Chief Executive like David Montgomery?

  Mr Lawson: It did change a bit because I think I had a pretty direct line through to Conrad Black if I wanted to, although there were people in between. I think in the case of the Barclays, they are on their rock in the middle of the Channel Islands, or whatever, and therefore you have a man called Murdoch McLennan, who was brought in from Associated Newspapers, and he acts as a kind of barrier, in so far as you needed another boulder, and so that is slightly different. Then you are not dealing with the press baron, you are dealing with an employee and that can be less satisfactory because ideally you do want an understanding with the ultimate shareholder—that is the best way of doing it.

  Q923  Baroness Thornton: What did Mr McLennan think his job was?

  Mr Lawson: I think his job was to control things and to have some sort of editorial influence, and you can see it in the astonishing turnover of editors at the Telegraph—I think seven or eight in the three years since they have had it—and that suggests a degree of interference, which was not previously the case. You will tend to see with better run newspaper groups that editors, like it not, have quite a long period in which they can influence the culture and absorb it themselves. I think the problem is—and another distinction I would make—that in the Telegraph formerly you had the people who were, if you like, between the editor and the owner—people like Andrew Knight, who was at The Economist and Jeremy Deedes, son of Bill Deedes, who was a journalist with a lifelong experience, and so you were dealing with people who at least basically had a journalistic insight and understood the nature of the work. Murdoch McLennan is a genius at print works—he knew everything there was about print works, which I certainly did not know—but I think has absolutely no journalistic intelligence at all, and it is slightly awkward when the person between you and the proprietor does not have a feel for it, and that can lead to misunderstanding.

  Chairman: Lady Bonham-Carter.

  Q924  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Could you tell us about the role of Andrew Neil under the Barclays?

  Mr Lawson: No, I cannot, I am afraid because he has a separate entity, which is Press Holdings, I think, which owns the business and The Spectator and he and Murdoch McLennan—as you know, the rivalries between Scots are peculiarly intense—have these separate baronies and I was in one and not the other. So I cannot, I am afraid.

  Q925  Lord Maxton: I know, Andrew, that you did not work at The Scotsman under the Barclay Brothers but presumably you still have some connections as to what goes on at The Scotsman. That was less true, was it not, at The Scotsman? Andrew Neil was actually called the Editor in Chief and The Scotsman had a whole series of editors underneath him, basically, during the period the Barclay Brothers owned it.

  Mr Marr: That is absolutely right. He was in effect the publisher of The Scotsman in all practical purposes and was up in Edinburgh probably two days a week, something like that, and under him The Scotsman went through a whole series of changes, including changing physically from its original premises to new-built ones, changing the size of the newspaper and, as you say, changing editor quite a lot of times, and he picked up younger editors who he would then mentor, as it were. So he had a much more direct influence there.

  Q926  Chairman: So what we are establishing is this old idea that it is just proprietors who have influence, and whether it was true in the past—it probably was—it is no longer true in the same way, there are other people who come into the equation in a fairly big way.

  Mr Marr: I think, Chairman, that every newspaper group is different on this and you can still find examples of proprietorial influence in Fleet Street now; but broadly speaking if a newspaper is successful, an editor is successful in making money and growing circulation and so on, the editor will be left alone. When that is not the case he will not be.

  Q927  Chairman: My last point, as a generalisation you would both say that you were in the main left alone to make your own decisions on what went in the newspaper?

  Mr Marr: Yes.

  Mr Lawson: Yes.

  Chairman: You both agree with that. Bishop of Manchester.

  Q928  Bishop of Manchester: Mr Marr, going back to The Mirror, I noticed in your book My Trade that you refer to a common Mirror Group tactic, which is, I gather, about controlling the editor, and I wonder if you can tell us why you felt that was needed and how it was actually done?

  Mr Marr: I am talking about, as I say, not political control—in my case at any rate—but trying to guide the paper down the path that the company wants it to go. After all, the company owns the paper and has a perfect right to do it. I think the point I was making—and I cannot quite recall—was that editors are strong and therefore relatively independent from time to time of management when they are perceived to be successful. In the modern newspaper market any owner or group can make their newspaper and therefore their editor appear to be successful in the short term very easily—you simply cut the price, you put on a CD, you can do this and you get rid of a bulks in Folkestone or whatever it may be and, hey presto, your circulation has risen rather attractively by 10% for that month or whatever, and the editor then gets nice profiles in the media sections and the editor feels stronger. Conversely, it is very easy to ensure that your editor is under pressure commercially and certainly my most difficult meetings would always be the early morning ones talking about advertising revenue, talking about circulation, talking about promotions. I was editing at a time when The Times was selling for way below cost price and we were under severe pressure. Of course in those circumstances the editor is potentially a weaker figure, feels himself to be a weaker figure vis-a"-vis the management.

  Q929  Bishop of Manchester: In your experience are there any cases where the promotions you are referring to can, in your view, affect the circulation in a positive way over a long period or are they here today gone tomorrow?

  Mr Marr: I cannot think of a single promotion that has worked in the longer term beyond price cutting. Price cutting over a long period does bring in new readers, some of whom will stick; but I think sticking CDs on or offering cheap flights to Malaga does not work.

  Q930  Bishop of Manchester: Mr Lawson, in the earlier conversations both of you were talking about how on the whole the editor is left alone, but you did say intriguingly earlier on in the conversation that in terms of specific stories, although they are rare, you could actually give chapter and verse, and I think it would be quite helpful to build up a picture—even though, as you have been describing, this is rather more in the past than the present—to have some of those bits of chapter and verse.

  Mr Lawson: I suppose I should give one from each owner but I think the only time that Conrad Black ever actively said he wanted a particular leader, which is the voice of the paper, was bizarrely when our circulation had risen rather dramatically through a subscription programme and the Sunday Times was a bit rattled and they did a leader saying, "This is bogus circulation of the Sunday Telegraph, and is not what it appears." Conrad was very angry about that and said that he wanted me to write a leader replying and I would not because I said it is not the business of the leader to engage in commercial spats between the groups, it should be on matters of general political importance. The thing about Conrad was that you could always argue him off the precipice—he liked an argument. He harrumphed and said, "I own the paper and I cannot decide what is in it?" and I said, "No, you can but I am just saying that it is very unwise." And that was it; that was the only time he ever in God knows how many years I was with him—16 years, whatever—tried to dictate what a leader should do, and I think he understood why he should not pursue his commercial battles in that way. I only once, under either owner, ever had a request not to run a particular news story and it was under the Barclays' ownership. We had sort of hounded David Blunkett out of office, in effect, and we were pursuing the matter and it was a story to do with him suing, trying to get an understanding as to the paternity of various children that he might or might not have fathered, and Aidan Barclay asked me not to run the story and I asked him was there a commercial reason and he said—and I remember it because it was rather surprising—"David"—and that is not Mr Blunkett—"is a very important man and will be around for some time," and I replied that what we do is write about important people who might be around for some time and if I could not do that then I could not do the job. He backed down and the story was run; but I remember being very amazed at the idea that because someone was an important person who might be around for some time that one should somehow not do it. I think it might have been naivety—it was disarmingly honest, which I appreciated. I think there is a danger then that you go from a culture where, if you like, the proprietor—and I suppose Rupert Murdoch would be a good example of this—thinks that politicians are here today and gone tomorrow but his editor is very important and the intuitive decision of the proprietor is to side with the editor against the political power. I think that is a healthy thing. I think it is not healthy when the intuitive reaction of an owner is to side with political power against his editor, and of course I do not want to go over the top with this but I think in too many countries in the world newspapers are frightened of politicians and what they can do to them. The fact that we have a country where it is the other way around—and politicians may not like it—is a much healthier culture. That was the only time under both owners when I ever had an owner say, "I do not want you to run this story."

  Q931  Bishop of Manchester: Finally, Mr Marr, is there an equivalent kind of story that you are able to offer?

  Mr Marr: Not really. I did not have pressure of any sort on anything political beyond the balance of stories that the papers have talked about. I am pretty sure that Tony O'Reilly has very different political opinions from those expressed by the Independent newspaper now and if you asked Simon Kelner now I suspect he would say the same thing. But beyond a weary half smile from time to time or a rheumy rolled eye that was all you got.

  Chairman: Lady Thornton.

  Q932  Baroness Thornton: I would like to explore more about the transition in ownership and the impact that that might have on your experience as editors. Mr Lawson, you have partly answered part of this question but can I use the transition issue to ask you if you think that the Barclay Brothers—that that is part of the culture, that that request is something which may continue, and have your successors been as robust in dealing with it?

  Mr Lawson: It is a very good question but it is very hard for me to know. I think one of the problems, if you have a situation where there was a very high turnover of editors—as I said they have had seven across both titles in three years, which contrasts very much with what has gone on before—is that that makes the editors frightened. They feel that their tenure is a weak one and that makes them more likely to defer to that kind of pressure. Whether that is the intention or not I simply do not know but there clearly is a risk of that.

  Q933  Baroness Thornton: Can we just explore the difference therefore that you experienced in the transition from one proprietor to another?

  Mr Lawson: It is a very intuitive thing but essentially you sense something rather than know it. Conrad Black understood that a lot of what newspapers did was about causing trouble, making mischief, throwing bricks through windows—what newspapers do from time immemorial. I think the Barclay brothers want a quiet life, do not want any aggro, want it all to be nice and smooth, and that is all very well but you should not own a newspaper if you do not want any aggravation; it is the wrong line of business. That is an intuitive judgment; it is very hard for me to say more than that.

  Q934  Baroness Thornton: Mr Marr?

  Mr Marr: A totally different situation from my perspective. Moving from the joint ownership under which I have been sacked to the new unified ownership under which I was sacked was none the less like Today in the sense that once you have a single owner it is just much, much easier. When you are constantly trying to accommodate two different views—never mind your own—about where the paper should be going it is too difficult. The only thing I would say is that in its very early phase when it in effect did not have an owner, when it was a free newspaper—not in the commercial sense but proprietorially—I think the Independent went through a wonderful efflorescence, early phase but that it was very, very hard without there being a big company, without there being a single owner to survive commercially. I think we demonstrated comprehensively that when that is not the case one group or proprietor needs to own a newspaper—you need to have one voice—and the Independent, subsequent to Tony O'Reilly taking over and putting in Simon Kelner and making those changes, has become absolutely clear about what it is in the way that it was not.

  Chairman: Lady Bonham-Carter and then moving on.

  Q935  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Picking up on the fact of the mortality of editors, one thing that one does notice is that there never seems to be a lack of a successor, which may explain why proprietors are so willing to get rid of their editors. Andrew, you have spoken about the fact that you had no political pressure put on you; on the other hand, you were asked to close down foreign bureaux and to change the types of news stories.

  Mr Marr: Yes.

  Q936  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: That seems to me to be a big case of influence.

  Mr Marr: It is absolutely not party political pressure but it was and is absolutely about what the newspaper is for and what it is about, and my then and current feeling is that the great danger for newspapers is that the reporting job, people out there finding stuff out and sticking it in the newspaper that you would not otherwise know is what is being cut and cut and cut. We were at the forefront of it, we were one of the earliest victims of it at the Independent. This notion that news is an entirely free commodity which bubbles in through the wire services and the job of the newspaper is simply to find out what its market is and then cut up, snip up these little pieces of this stuff that has come free to the newspaper and put them attractively on bits of paper and then market them appropriately, that seems to me to be the death of what a newspaper is. That is the battle I thought I was fighting when I was editor of the Independent and up to a point successfully. The Independent has a very small staff now; it has a staff that is too small when it comes to reporters, quite patently, but it does still have a cadre of some good reporters there too.

  Q937  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: In your book you say that papers have a culture passed on from sub to sub and reporter to reporter which, as you put it, matters as much as the editor's personal qualities. Can I suggest to you that culture can be changed by a proprietor, a different proprietor?

  Mr Marr: Absolutely. You have to be careful because the newspaper's culture is intimately related to the newspaper's readership. The hilarious events around the Express newspaper for a few years, of which I was also as a spear carrier involved, when an attempt was made to take a paper whose classic readership had been semi-retired prison service officers from the north of England with staunchly conservative views and turn it into an environmentally friendly leftish newspaper—as I say, it was a comedy. You have to be very careful when you try to wrench a culture one way and then another. I certainly felt that my job at the Independent was to try to hold on to as much as I could of the culture that had been created by people like Andreas Whittham Smith and Stephen Glover and the rest in the early days and pass it on. That was really why I was fighting those battles because I thought there was something, albeit only of a few years' standing.

  Q938  Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: Mr Lawson, would you agree that that is the danger that newspapers are facing?

  Mr Lawson: Yes. It is very interesting because The Telegraph Group—and I am speaking now about the Daily Telegraph, which of course I did not edit—Conrad Black was a great international figure, a global figure, so you had very good foreign pages. The Barclays are more parochial figures and you now find that the Telegraph has no full-time staff correspondent in Paris, no full-time staff correspondent in Brussels, and you see then that it is picking up agency copy which appears under the title of "By a Telegraph correspondent" which it clearly is not. That is a problem. It is also a problem for the editor because actually your full-time staff correspondents—if you are the spider at the centre of the web you need the vibrations coming to you, which inform you as an editor, which is actually quite important. I think the one thing that has not been touched on which does relate to the problems that newspapers have now is that it is much more of a struggle for newspapers to get the advertising, for various reasons we know to do with the nature of the Internet and so forth, and the desperation to get advertising can lead to a dreadful corruption of journalistic standards and you begin to see—and I have seen it in The Telegraph Group—pages which are advertising masquerading as editorial. If you look very closely it is all to do with Audi.

  Q939  Chairman: Like what?

  Mr Lawson: It would be something about design but it would all be actually promoting Audi and every single car is an Audi car. It looks like editorial but it is not really editorial. You have now departments in newspapers which are in a sense saying, "How do we do stuff that the advertisers would want?" Of course, commercially it is obvious because the non-tabloid, what we used to call broadsheet papers, about 70% of their revenues came from advertising—that was the bulk of it—and as they get more desperate for it they can do things which debauch the editorial integrity of the product, and that is something that is probably separate from what you are looking at in terms of the proprietorial influence, but it is something that one needs to look at.

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