Every newspaper proprietor or chief executive I have ever met has claimed he allows his editors to edit without interference. With some, it may well have been true. Others presumably had their fingers crossed behind their backs as they looked me in the eyes and protested: "Moi?" The ability to resist playing with the train set – and, in some cases, derailing the locomotive – does not come naturally to those with the desire and drive to become newspaper proprietors or chief executives.
The first Lord Thomson of Fleet, as he became, had little interest in the editorial columns of The Sunday Times, being concerned only with balance sheets, and Lord Matthews, as the builder Victor became, was bemused by the whole editorial process. Philip Graf, currently in charge at Trinity Mirror, assured me he does not interfere editorially and I believe him. But these are rare specimens.
Lord Beaverbook boasted of his editorial muscle, telling a Royal Commission on the press that he was in newspapers for the purpose of propaganda. He made the Daily Express great and used it to bludgeon governments, individual politicians and anyone else who did not share his views of a glorious ongoing British Empire. The Beaver’s fingers constantly probed the editorial pie and when he barked, his editors jumped.
If we care to believe the shispers from Ludgate House, the boss still calls the editorial shots. Desmond expects his editors to dance when he whistles.
Eventually the sun set on the Empire campaign and, after pillage and rape by a succession of apathetic owners, the Daily Express itself has sunk close to the horizon. But if we care to believe the whispers and groans leaking from Ludgate House, one thing hasn’t changed – the boss still calls the editorial shots. Richard Desmond expects his editors to dance when he whistles.
I would guess that it is at Desmond’s behest that the Sunday Express has introduced a media column which, on early evidence, seems no more than a broadsword with which to cleave lumps out of the papers and media persons who have earned the boss’s displeasure.
The most recent of these sniped at the Daily Mail, suggesting that an executive there had admitted that the Express Group "may have got a better deal" by not buying Victoria Beckham’s autobiography, which was snaffled from under Desmond’s nose by Associated Newspapers. The Express papers serialised what the Sunday Express described as a "much juicer, unauthorised book – and recorded a big sales boost across all the titles". The scramble for the Beckham book, which Desmond lost by being slow on the draw when pulling out a pen to sign the cheque, culminated in the weekend that England overwhelmed Germany in their World Cup qualifier, of course. Most papers, but especially the tabloids, did well over the following couple of days.
The Express papers’ "spoiler" was a third-rate cuttings job, but Desmond was determined to claim victory, whatever the facts – and the main fact is that the day after England’s mauling of the Germans, The Mail on Sunday increased its sale by more than any other paper; indeed, its circulation that day was its second-highest ever. The combination of the national football team’s most potent victory since 1966 and Posh Spice’s pout-and-tell tale proved irresistible.
On the same day this rewrite of recent newspaper history appeared in the Sunday Express, two further media section pages, under the headline, "Is it the end for Conrad Black and Telegraph Newspapers?", were devoted to a widescreen slaughtering of the Canadian press baron’s business ability. Express Newspapers and Hollinger, owners of the Telegraph, are in dispute over the price Desmond is demanding for his half-share of the jointly owned West Ferry printworks. Hence a character assassination under the guise of a serious analytical piece on Black and his shrinking newspaper empire.
So it goes. Along with other Mirror Group editors, I spent many uncomfortable hours trying to head off Robert Maxwell when he wanted to play with his trains and wilfully send them clattering off in the direction of his choosing, no matter how wayward. We won more than we lost, I think, although the Captain was not averse to waiting until our backs were turned and then insisting to less senior members of staff that he was taking charge of the signal box.
But whether or not the man upstairs – his office is usually high in the building, presumably so he can communicate more easily with the Almighty – meddles directly with the editorial mix, he can have an omnipresence that is just as insidious when it permeates the paper. For years at the Mirror, soppy house "rules" instigated by editorial director Hugh Cudlipp, usually in a fit of pique or irritation and long since forgotten by him, were adhered to by jobsworths with a sycophantic insistence that ignored reason.
Far more serious lickspittling than slavish attention to Hugh’s peccadilloes – at one time, to put three ellipses rather than the Cudlipp-decreed two at the end of a headline would provoke serious kneeknocking on the back bench – seems to have been influencing the content of The Times. According to Sam Kiley, until last month Middle East correspondent of the paper and writing last week in the Evening Standard, he quit because The Times’s foreign editor and other executives interfered with his reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Stories showing Israel in a bad light were spiked or spun to soften or distort.
Those doing the meddling knew that Rupert Murdoch is a close friend of Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister, and that News Corporation has invested heavily in the country. Murdoch didn’t have to exert editorial influence – what Kiley described as "hysterical terror" of offending the boss did the job for him. Times editor Peter Stothard dismissed Kiley’s allegations as "unsubstantiated paranoia", but the paper’s stance on events on the West Bank has been leaning so far towards Israel that it’s a surprise it hasn’t toppled over. And Kiley has gone.
Lord Beaverbook boasted of his editorial muscle, telling a Royal Commission on the press that he was in newspapers for the purpose of propaganda.
Attempts to curry favour with the guv’nor exists at all levels, of course. In a recent Medialand column, I commented on an attack by Mirror columnist Tony Parsons on Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye. In an interview with the Evening Standard’s Andrew Billen, Parsons had indicated that he had called Hislop, among other things, "a mediocre little troll" to demonstrate his loyalty to Mirror editor Piers Morgan, who has been mercilessly lampooned in the Eye.
"Surely the editor did not request his star columnist to retaliate?" I wrote. And, if he didn’t, I concluded that Parsons was brown-nosing his editor. Morgan became apoplectic over the telephone after he read the piece, resenting any implication that he might have instructed Parsons to put his inelegant boot into Hislop. So Parsons presumably was just giving his editor what he thought he would want. If the need for ellipses ever arises, I trust he will use only two.