‘Old geezer’ Simon Kelner retains journalistic spirit despite move into PR

According to Simon Kelner, you should count Fleet Street editors ages differently from the rest of us.

“An editor’s life is like dog years,” he tells Press Gazette, “I’d been editor-in-chief [at The Independent] for 13 and a bit years, so effectively that’s 91 years. And it began to feel a bit like that.”

Kelner, a self-anointed “old geezer” is actually a youthful 55. But, as if to prove that it’s a young buck’s game these days, in the week when he meets Press Gazette his former paper has appointed two new editors – Amol Rajan at The Independent and Oliver Duff at the i – that are pretty close to half his age (they are both 29).

Meanwhile, Kelner has taken on a new challenge at the helm of PR start-up Seven Dials, named after its upmarket Covent Garden address.

Kelner’s new offices, embedded in those of Seven Dials’ advertising agency parent company BMB, are a far cry from the newsrooms of his past. In place of piles of newspapers and long-forgotten cups of tea are pristine Macbooks and fridges crammed with energy drinks. Clean lines and clear surfaces are the order of the day.

“It’s not like a newsroom in some respects,” admits Kelner. “But in others, it is. It’s full of clever, engaged media-literate people.”

In fact, the very kind of young, energetic people with which Kelner was keen to surround himself at the Indy.

With two of those Bright Young Things now installed in editors’ chairs, talk turns to a third of Kelner’s “protégés”, a certain Johann Hari.

When , in 2011, Hari was suspended from The Independent after he was found to have fabricated quotes and maliciously edited Wikipedia pages, many of the columnist’s harshest critics accused Kelner of going soft on him.

He does not shy away from addressing what happened to the once golden boy: “It went wrong with Johann and I feel very sad that happened; sad for him because he’s a huge talent and sad for the paper because it inevitably caused damage.”

Tellingly, Kelner, who says he is still in regular contact with Hari is more at ease censuring the actions than the man. He even sees a way back in to journalism for his former colleague.

“He did wrong and he’s definitely paid the price for what he did but I would hope that he’s given the chance to rehabilitate himself.

“He has to produce a body of work that is unimpeachable and I think that he has to accept that it’s going to be a tough battle for people to accept him back in the fold.”

Kelner accepts some of the criticism over Hari’s lack of formal training as a journalist but says it’s “cloud cuckoo land” to imagine a return to an age when most – if not all – reporters on nationals had done their time in the regional and local press before making the step up.

“These days you can walk in off the street and have a bloody column in five minutes,” he says. “I’m not saying whether it’s right or wrong but that’s the reality of the situation.

“It would be great if you couldn’t get a job at a national newspaper unless you’d had three years’ training and then gone and worked on a local paper. That would be great but that’s a utopia.”

Kelner himself did his time at a local paper, initially on the Neath Guardian in South Wales, where he was a sports reporter. He stayed in what he calls “the ghetto” that is sports journalism (“a great way to earn your living”) for the first decade and a half of his career before the then Observer editor Donald Trelford  invited him to take charge of the magazine section.

As one of the few big-name journalists to have straddled news and sport, Kelner is sensitive to the recent criticism – from Channel 4 News’s Alex Thomson among others – that the sporting press pack has become docile in the face of its subjects.

“Is sports journalism questioning enough? I do think it’s a valid question. But I also understand the difficulties of covering a sport every day and being woven into the fabric of that sport.

“For a sports journalist it’s all about relationships and gaining confidence. Then a big story happens and a news reporter comes in and blows apart that relationship you’ve spent 20 years building up. So, yes, there’s a tension.”

Kelner has blown apart one or two relationships himself over the years. A famous set-to with Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch in the run-up to the 2010 general election has become part of newspaper folklore. Before that, he admits to having fallen out with Alastair Campbell over The Independent’s vehement opposition to the Iraq War.

But such feuds were, apparently, fleeting. He shared a joke with Brooks at a recent wedding, while of Campbell, he says he’d be “pleased to see him” if he were to stroll into his office.

As for Evgeny Lebedev, the man in control of The Independent when Kelner left and with whom he set up the now defunct Journalism Foundation, he is less effusive. “Perfectly cordial,” Kelner says when asked about their relationship.

So what of the move into PR? Kelner concedes that moving across the journalistic Maginot line would have been hard to imagine a few years ago, but things have changed.

“I definitely think that the lines [between the two] are being blurred now. Newspapers are cutting back on editorial resources and so more PR gumpf gets in the paper.

“There’s less discretion,” he adds, unhappily.

Surely PR people are pleased when that happens?

“Yes they are. But I’m not. Both journalism and PR, at their best, should be about the truth. I care too much about newspapers and I don’t think in the end it does anyone any good to just peddle rubbish.”

So is he still a journalist or has he switched sides? He tells a story of how, when his daughter came looking for him in his new place of work, a colleague looked perplexed. “Oh, you mean the PR guy?” she was asked.

“The idea that I was defined as ‘the PR guy’ made us both laugh,” Kelner recalls. “But I suppose that’s what I am.”

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