A lesson for editors: make a stand, or risk being called bland

The
arrest of Scottish weekly editor Alan Buchan for allegedly racist
comments in a leader column rightly perturbs any journalist believing
in freedom of speech. The one positive from it, perhaps, was that
somebody actually noticed the leader in the first place.

Leader
columns in their grown-up sense are traditionally regarded as the
preserve of Fleet Street’s big beasts like The Times and the Telegraph.
Yet hundreds of leaders are published every day by regional newspapers
across Britain.

But do they really make a difference and do editors take seriously the role a well-argued leader column has to play?

Mark
Waldron, editor of the Swindon Advertiser, has devoted much time
recently expressing robust views through his ‘Swindon and proud of it’

campaign.
He agrees the marketing role of a leader is hard to measure, but he
can’t imagine going to press without a strong opinion to offer readers.

“Local newspaper life is all about having a view and standing up for people,” he
says. “The leader column is an easy way of doing that. We can take a
view and put across our thoughts. It gives the paper a bit more
personality.

“Does it sell more papers? Probably not. But I hope people read them and we’d never consider dropping the leader column.”

Russell
Borthwick, managing director of media, marketing and communications
company Press Ahead, also believes leaders have a role to play in
reinforcing newspaper brands.

“They are an important part of
brand value. People would expect to see them there,” says Borthwick.
“Regional papers are not political but tend to score well with readers
when they express opinion.

“Having a leader column and taking a
view is an expected part of the newspaper that helps position the
brand. It doesn’t influence purchase frequency, and why would it? But
if it wasn’t there, it would devalue the brand. The leader is a
positive facet for a newspaper as blandness is seen as a negative
trait.”

The relative influence of a leader, however, can also
depend on where you publish and what you write about, as Belfast
Telegraph editor-in-chief Ed Curran explains.

He recalls
receiving a call at home one day from Tony Blair to talk about the
peace process, and then the following day getting another from a
frantic Alastair Campbell asking him to fax over that day’s leader
column.

Half an hour later and Blair could be seen on television
at the dispatch box referring to the leader and clutching the fax,
proof indeed that leaders can have influence in the right places.

“The
leader column in the context of Northern Ireland, and certainly the
Belfast Telegraph, is the spine of the newspaper,” explains Curran.

“We
have been the voice of sanity for a lot of that time. When I started as
a leader writer in the early 1970s we were saying then the only future
for Northern Ireland was conflict or compromise, and the latter is what
has happened, although it has taken a long time to get there.

“All
the way through the Troubles, successive secretaries of state regarded
the editorial in the Belfast Telegraph as a barometer of the community.

“My
own view on editorials is that in 312 publishing days a year there are
probably a large number of editorials that write themselves.

“But
a number still require skilful judgement. If you get it wrong in
Belfast it can set you on the wrong course for a long time. You can
place yourself in a difficult position and you have to get it right on
day one.”

Roger Borrell, former editor of the Birmingham Evening
Mail and the Lancashire Evening Post, regrets the diminishing role of
leaders.

“Today leader columns have become devalued, and wrongly so,” he says.

“The leader column should be voice of the paper and editor, but today editors do not pay enough attention to them.

“I
know editors who field phone calls from readers about leaders and the
editor has not even read it. However, done properly the leader has a
vital role to play.”

Alistair Machray, editor of the Liverpool
Echo, agrees it’s time for the role of opinions to be revised. He says:
“No one reads leaders so we hide them away on a left-hand page and set
them in whispering, apologetic grey type. Or does no one read them
because they’re shoved on left handers and made to look boring? It’s
chicken and egg.

“But the local paper needs attitude and it needs to be at the hub of everything. So opinion columns have to be important. We’re going for it now. Bigger type, bolder headlines, pull-out quotes. And we’re using ‘mini leaders’ throughout
the paper where our specialist, named writers sound-off and analyse on
big stories. We need to lead our communities, not just reflect them.”

Deciding
on the overall value of leaders is not straightforward. Perhaps the
last word then should go to Sir Harold Evans’s anecdote in his
magisterial memoir Good Times, Bad Times.

A leader writer once suggested writing a column about Belgium. Curious, Evans inquired what had happened.

Nothing, came the reply, it had just been a long time since they had written anything about Belgium.

A tale worth remembering the next time an editor is stuck for a leader idea.

Freelance journalist and consultant Robin Fletcher is a former editor of the South Wales Echo and Wales on Sunday

Comments
No comments to display

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

2 + four =

CLOSE
CLOSE