Examination of Witnesses (Questions 920
WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2007
Mr Andrew Marr and Mr Dominic Lawson
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 handand actually
quite a badly mutilated handhow 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
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.
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 shareholderthat is the best way of doing
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 TelegraphI
think seven or eight in the three years since they have had itand
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 isand another distinction I would makethat
in the Telegraph formerly you had the people who were,
if you like, between the editor and the ownerpeople 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 workshe knew everything
there was about print works, which I certainly did not knowbut
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
McLennanas you know, the rivalries between Scots are peculiarly
intensehave 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.
So what we are establishing is this old idea that it is just proprietors
who have influence, and whether it was true in the pastit
probably wasit 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.
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
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
Mr Marr: I am talking about, as I say, not political
controlin my case at any ratebut 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 makingand I cannot quite recallwas
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 easilyyou 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
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
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
pictureeven though, as you have been describing, this is
rather more in the past than the presentto 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 precipicehe 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 him16 years,
whatevertried 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 saidand
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 naivetyit was disarmingly honest, which
I appreciated. I think there is a danger then that you go from
a culture where, if you like, the proprietorand I suppose
Rupert Murdoch would be a good example of thisthinks 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 aroundand
politicians may not like itis 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 Brothersthat 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 editorsas
I said they have had seven across both titles in three years,
which contrasts very much with what has gone on beforeis
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 windowswhat
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: 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 viewsnever
mind your ownabout 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 newspapernot in the commercial sense but proprietoriallyI
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 newspaperyou
need to have one voiceand 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
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 newspaperas 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'
Q938 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury:
Mr Lawson, would you agree that that is the danger that newspapers
Mr Lawson: Yes. It is very interesting because
The Telegraph Groupand I am speaking now about the Daily
Telegraph, which of course I did not editConrad 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 correspondentsif
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 seeand I have seen it in The Telegraph Grouppages
which are advertising masquerading as editorial. If you look very
closely it is all to do with Audi.
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 advertisingthat was the bulk of itand
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.