Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1760 - 1779)


Sir Simon Jenkins

  Q1760  Chairman: Just let me stay on this theme for a moment. I noticed that in some of the papers I was reading you wrote inside the Guardian—you really have written for everybody, have you not—for which you are now a columnist, a column which was critical of the Guardian and there were not repercussions on that? That was regarded as fair play?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: There were repercussions; we are all human. I would like to say that I thought what they were doing was wrong.

  Q1761  Chairman: Tell us what that was.

  Sir Simon Jenkins: It is a fairly straightforward case of can you buy editorial in a newspaper? I am afraid on that occasion you could by for x thousands of pounds an editorial section of the Guardian, undeclared. When I was at The Times and the Standard and The Economist, the only papers I have actually written for, there were very, very strict rules about editorial, about special supplements, about all this sort of thing—there were not at the Guardian. I told the editor that I intended to write about this; he looked extremely green but said I was entitled to write whatever I liked in my column and he carried it, and I thought that was greatly to his credit.

  Q1762  Chairman: Apart from the quality of the editor, the judgment of the editor, is there anything which in the structure of the Guardian submits that, allows that independence even when you are criticising your own paper?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I think there is. Having worked for tooth and claw capitalists and the Guardian, which is the other end of the spectrum, there is a difference. Undoubtedly at the Guardian there is a sense that editorial integrity is almost sacred. I have to say I think it is a bit of a joke because if the Guardian editor decided he was going to be a Tory I do not think he would be there very long, but that is my joke. I do think that there is a sense in which the Guardian ought to be slightly cleaner than clean than the other papers, which is why I was so shocked.

  Q1763  Chairman: Had you sought to do the same on The Times would that column ever have appeared?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I think it is doubtful. It was a commercially damaging column and it arose because I was approached by people who had been denied access to this supplement, who objected very strongly to the content of the supplement, and I think it really was a rare instance and greatly to the credit of the Guardian that they carried the piece.

  Q1764  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Conflicts of interests generally. We have discussed in the two previous sessions that when it comes to reporting stories that are directly relevant to an owner's business interests that neither of them really are very good at avoiding critical stories. It is expected; do you think that this (a) is so, and (b) that it is possible to do this in a way which is acceptable?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I do not quite see the question. If you are saying do we have an ethical problem here about newspapers covering their own owner's business affairs ...

  Q1765  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: You made the point earlier, fair enough, that they would not do it and you have diversity. Sorry, I probably did not put it very well, but what one is really on about here is you have a proprietor—obviously talking about Murdoch particularly, but no doubt there are other examples—who is leaning on the editor not to carry stories about something which is affecting his or her business interests. Is there any way of getting out of that, given the fact that the owner owns and the editor and owner have to get on to stay together?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I have to say, if I were a tycoon and I decided to spend a large sum of my money losing it on a newspaper—and almost all newspapers lose money—and I was then told, "By the way, this paper is nothing to do with you, you cannot express your views through it at all," I would think what am I subsidising the blasted journalists for; there must be some fun in this game? Conrad Black, who I think actually took this all very much to heart, up to a point he allowed complete freedom but he allowed freedom in the context of a vigorous conversation with his editors, and that vigorous conversation clearly is not altogether one-sided. The number of occasions when push comes to shove on this are so few that I just do not regard it as one of the great issues of press freedom. There is clearly a problem with the private ownership of newspapers, that the newspapers privately owned are now operating under a tradition of editorial independence, which in itself is wholly new—it was a post-war invention, this concept—and they expect in some way or another to have editors as heroes who are going to castigate their own owners to show how macho they are. It is important that you have, I believe, a concept of editorial independence, which enshrines a separate concept of editorial integrity, and that these two concepts together in some sense protect press freedom, but they are operating, for better or for worse—and I believe much for better in Britain—under a capitalist system and there are going to be some no-go areas within that, one of which is going to be the editor's freedom, if you like, to intrude on his proprietor or his owner or his company, whatever it may be. To that my answer is, as I said at the very beginning, seven groups and ten titles. I think that is the best you are going to get. If they were owned by government it would be much worse.

  Q1766  Baroness Howe of Idlicote: Do you think the danger is that there might be less than seven owners, as it were?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I heard what Roy said earlier and all I can say is that I joined this profession about 40 years ago and there were nine titles and seven groups; there are today ten titles and seven groups. I do not think you have such continuity of structure of any industry in Britain. The profit and loss account has changed, the character of the titles has changed, I may say infinitely for the better, but in terms of what might be called the cataclysm scenario, which I have listened to since I was a boy, for newspapers just has not happened yet.

  Q1767  Lord Maxton: Yet.

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I put "yet" in a bracket.

  Q1768  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Can I just broaden this question of who determines the content, as it were, to the question of the influence of the readership? We have heard a number of editors telling with great pride how much attention they pay to the opinions of their readers and the various ways in which they solicit their opinions. You have said that you were a bit sceptical about the possibility that people will have their minds changed by reading a newspaper because you imagine, I think, that people read the newspaper that is best going to reflect their own opinion. Within that what is driving as between proprietors, editors and readership the content of newspapers, as you see it?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: It is a question to which there can only be a somewhat diffuse answer. Start with the owner. Why did he want to buy the paper in the first place; why did he want to own it? It may be his family owned it; it may be that his company was bored and wanted to liven things up a bit, which was Trafalgar House; it may be that he is a foreigner and he wants to establish a stake in Britain—it happened to The Observer twice. The reasons why the owner wants the paper—which is the beginning of the answer to your question—are going to be so diffuse as to make a simple answer not easy. I wrote a book once called The Market for Glory because I decided that the thing that most people want from a newspaper is glory, and until you appreciated that it was not for money, it was for glory—it is like buying a racehorse or a trophy wife or something—this is not serious business. If it was serious business you would not go into the newspapers. Once you come down below that level the editor selected to run the newspaper is going to be tugged two ways; he is going to be tugged the way of that proprietor, most of whom are of very longstanding, and he is going to be tugged the way of the tradition of the paper, into which is built the views of the readers. There is no point in becoming editor of the Daily Telegraph and running it for the Barclay family if you are a left wing supporter of a paper like The Sun—it is just a stupid thing to do. So the tradition of a newspaper is a very, very important constraint on an editor—do not upset your readers. The readers in this context are self-selecting for the newspaper; you buy The Telegraph because you like The Telegraph, you are a Telegraph sort of person—it badges you what paper you carry on the tube. You want your friends to know that you read the Guardian or The Times or The Telegraph or whatever. All these things are going to be influences on the editor in deciding everything from the party he supports at a general election to what he puts on page three. I do not think there is a simple answer to this.

  Q1769  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: But there is a great deal of concentration at least in terms of what is said on the interactivity now with newspapers and the fact that they consult their readers, some editors imply that they are led by their readership. If you think about how that influences public policy, let us say, then clearly what politicians feel about newspapers must be partly influenced by how much they think a newspaper reflects the opinion of their electorate. If that is the case where does the proprietor, where does the ownership issue sit in the question of the influence that newspapers and other media have on public policy?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I would have said it is 5% to 10% of the answer to your question; in other words, it is relatively unimportant. Nothing pleases the owner more than that circulation should be going up. If you want to get the circulation to go up, I would have said, you do listen to your readers up to a point. So a successful newspaper as perceived within the industry is a paper whose circulation is going up—simple as that. It does not matter if you are losing a fortune because provided the circulation is going up the proprietor tends to be happy because his glory—this is my thesis—is invested in the popularity of the newspaper. Where I think you ask a more difficult question is how successful are most editors in genuinely reflecting the opinions of their readers, such that their editorials are worth reading by politicians? In other words, when a politician says, "I must do this because the Daily Mail says so" is it because the Daily Mail says so, is it because the editor of the Daily Mail says so, or is it really because the readers say so? Did the readers really say so or are they just reading the Daily Mail for the health column? What I say is that these are questions that tax editors all the time and if they knew the answer they would probably be more successful editors. I think that no editor ignores what is perceived to be the traditional readership of that paper or what he or she would like to think is the new readership of that newspaper.

  Q1770  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Therefore would you say that politicians' preoccupation, which I think does exist, with who owns newspapers in terms of therefore who they should be getting at to get their views out or worrying about in terms of what should be influencing them, is that overstated? Is that something which belongs to another era or is it still a relevant factor in the way that politics is done?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I think it is massively overstated—massively overstated. Undoubtedly if your spin doctor tells you that the only two papers that matter are The Sun and the Daily Mail it would be a somewhat cavalier party leader or politician who said, "I do not give a damn about the Sun and the Daily Mail, despite what you have just told me." In the first place the proprietor is not necessarily the person who is going to do you the global warming leader—it is much more likely to be one of the leader writers. This relationship between the proprietor and the editorial opinion of the newspaper is honestly much more I would say distant than it appears to seem to outsiders.

  Q1771  Chairman: Do we as politicians—ex-politicians some of us—take the influence of newspapers far too seriously?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I do not know. I have known politicians who regard newspapers as God Almighty and I think they are slightly ludicrous figures, frankly; they are supposed to be leaders, they are elected leaders and they should be leading and not following the press. Naming no names they tend to come to grief through doing so. I have admired politicians who thumb their nose at newspapers and have said, "It is wrapping fish tomorrow morning" because in one sense that is true. At the same time I think that serious newspapers at least—in fact all newspapers—are a part of the political debate and it would be odd for a politician not to regard serious comment in a reasonably serious newspaper as a part of that debate.

  Q1772  Lord King of Bridgwater: Just picking up the point you made that what editors really care about is circulation and seeing circulation of the paper go up, and where they have a close link with their proprietor is the marketing budget and the funds they are prepared to put in. When one sees quite remarkable increases in circulation coming in from a DVD of some particular event or celebrity involved what about that because we have talked entirely about the content of the newspaper being the sold factor?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: Where reverting to the conversation about proprietors is relevant is precisely in the area that you are talking about. If, for the sake of argument, you wanted a new supplement the management has to give it to you, it is going to cost money, the company is going to have to find the money. That is a much more serious constraint on editing than what goes into the editorial column, it really is—it is a daily constraint. It used to be the sort of problems editors had—when I was at the Standard it was all the trade unions, there was not an hour of the day when you did not have a trade union problem. After Wapping that stopped, there was not an hour of the day you did not have a management problem. But that is in the nature of the business. Where I think there is much in what you say is that running a newspaper is a management job and you rely on managers, you rely on the holding company being forthcoming with money; almost all newspapers do not make money so every conversation is touched by that and it is very difficult when you are losing money to go and ask the company for £10 million for a marketing campaign, which you know will increase the circulation and make you look good but costs them money.

  Q1773  Lord King of Bridgwater: We have talked about the new media or new outlets and saying this is going to be big money, and we talked a bit earlier about Murdoch coming in and whether he was the owner bigger and I think the question of Harry Evans putting together some consortium. Actually The Times would not have survived, would it, with Harry Evans because what actually Murdoch did was the reason that The Times was being destroyed, as other newspapers were, was the catastrophic situation of the print unions and actually Murdoch having big enough pockets to actually take them on. You will remember those events. That could only have been done by an extremely rich proprietor and nearly bust him in the process. Do you see that challenge now coming in the new media areas where it is going to take very big pockets to take various newspapers and other groups into the new media?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I do not think any of us really knows the answer to where this dear industry of mine is going to be in ten years' time. I tend to fall back rather pathetically on the fact that I have heard its doom being written so many times since I was in short trousers that I think it will see me out. But that is no comfort for younger journalists. I do think it will see me out, but that is me. There is no doubt, going back to your premise, that what happened in the 1980s was utterly seismic; an industry was taken by the scruff of its neck and shaken up no end, as a result of which, I repeat, we have ten daily newspapers and New York has three, or whatever, and New York is unionised and London is not. That, to my mind, was a wholly beneficial good and probably I would not be here today if it was not for what Murdoch did in Wapping. I am just an unequivocal fan of that operation and everyone involved in it.

  Q1774  Lord King of Bridgwater: And a lot of other newspapers too.

  Sir Simon Jenkins: And a lot of newspapers too, and Andreas Whittam Smith would be the first to admit that he would not have launched the Independent without it. The benefits of that were first channelled into corporate profits, then they were channelled into price cutting, and that era in a sense is now over and we are all losing money again, or most of us. The question is how do we respond in the same terms to the new media? The new media are completely different and I think there—and I do not totally agree with Roy on this—that there simply will be a niche market for the daily newspaper. Those people who do not want to spend their entire morning on a screen or do not have a screen or do not have a screen with them on the train, or whatever it might be, the character of those papers, which has been phenomenally constant over 40 years, while at the same time all of them have updated themselves. Compare the London papers with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which look like 1890s papers. We innovate all the time because we are in such competition, and because we are in such competition we have to keep abreast of what the niche wants. The niche now appears to want a newspaper with lots of supplements and magazines that they can keep lying around the house. It may well be that the market niche does not want a Saturday and a Sunday paper—and I have views on that. I find it hard to believe that people will not want newspapers. They may want fewer of them; they may have to pay much more for them.

  Q1775  Chairman: Or the opposite—there may be many more free newspapers, and I think Roy Greenslade was saying that.

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I think there may. Free newspapers tend to be a product of a desperate search for profit rather than for glory. These are mostly glory products and I think that there will always be someone terribly proud—for 30 years there was always someone terribly proud to be the owner of the Observer, people queued up every time the Observer was for sale to buy the Observer. Nobody ever wanted to make money out of it. I do not see why that should end.

  Q1776  Chairman: You do not think that people will queue up to become owner of the Metro?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: No, and that is an important distinction, I think; or of a website.

  Q1777  Lord Inglewood: You have more or less touched on the point I was going to ask, which is, to put it the way you put it, do you think that there is going to be a good supply of glory boys in the future or do you think that the way media is evolving we may find that the kind of conglomerate, corporate ownership which does not necessarily have an obvious, prominent person as its figurehead may become proprietor of what we are calling newspapers?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: Logic suggests that that would be the case but history does not.

  Q1778  Lord Inglewood: That is why I asked the question.

  Sir Simon Jenkins: History suggests that there is a supply of people who are searching for glory and indeed if anything the increased mobility of money, the increased globalisation of high finance, the increased attraction of living in London all tell in favour of people wanting to lose money on London newspapers.

  Q1779  Lord Maxton: So if Murdoch, as we have heard, is bored with Britain and decides he no longer wants to sustain the losses on The Times and The Sunday Times, who would buy it?

  Sir Simon Jenkins: I do not know but I bet you anything there would be a dozen people who would buy the times—it would be a Russian, an Arab or a Persian, Indian or Chinese.

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