Generally speaking, editors are best heard but not seen. There are exceptions – the words “Piers” and “Morgan” leap to mind when considering editors more upfront than Jordan’s chest – but on the whole those with the final editorial say-so are at their most effective when rolling up their sleeves in the office, rather than skateboarding across our television screens or gracing the pages of their newspapers.
The trouble is, editors tend to get carried away when basking in the spotlight or indulging in their own version of Back to the Floor.
Martin Newland is an experienced news journalist who was only four weeks into his editorship of The Daily Telegraph when he retrieved his laptop from the attic and spread himself all over two pages of the paper. There must have been upwards of 5,000 words recounting his talk with President George W Bush on “a wide range of topics, from Iraq to the countryside of County Durham”.
President Bush actually granted the interview to three British editors – the Financial Times and the Press Association completed the trio – on the eve of his state visit, although this was not revealed to the reader until the 11th fat paragraph of the Telegraph’s front-page lead story.
On the juggernaut of a spread inside, Newland faithfully reported the president’s views, but also devoted a huge slab of text to what amounted to Bush tickling the editors under their chins and scratching them behind their ears. They dutifully rolled over and purred – at least, the Telegraph’s did.
Here’s a selection from the editor’s report of his “informal tour of the Oval Office” when he saw “another side of President George W Bush”.
“Mr Bush led us over toâ€¦ paintings of his home state. ‘That’s what our ranch looks like,’ he said wistfully, before pointing to another. ‘That’s west Texasâ€¦ far west Texas. Where I was raised it’s flatter than that.'” Now stop yawning and pay attention.
I haven’t finished yet.
The most powerful man in the world continued: “It’s very important for a president to know who he is before you take this job.” Terrible syntax, but you get the picture.
“And that is precisely the quality that strikes you upon meeting Mr Bush,” commented Newland. “He displays incredible self-possession. He is also taller than one might think and athletic.”
Stop giggling at the back. There’s more to come.
“He shifts easily between a forbidding formality, one time silencing me with a raised hand and the words ‘let me finish here’, and disarming informality, later asking: ‘Do you pump iron?'” Newland does, I believe, pump iron and one could almost see the muscles rippling in the spread’s illustration, a six-column picture of the editor shaking hands with the president.
So I had better watch my step when taking Newland to task for this ingratiating and wearisome guff.
Unfortunately, this is not my only complaint about his stewardship of the Telegraph: as the self-appointed monitor of snooty tabloid-bashers, I would draw attention to the Telegraph-YouGov poll published the day after the Bush fawn-in.
“Royals’ tabloid war harms both sides, say public” was the headline on a survey that revealed, among other things, the results of questions put under the heading “Royalty and the tabloids”. For example: “Do you think tabloid newspapers such as The Mail on Sunday are deliberately trying to damage the Royal Family?” (55 per cent said yes, they did).
If this were a murder inquiry, the Telegraph would be charged as an accessory for handing its already prejudiced readers a loaded gun. And how many of the 890,274 purchasers of the paper – last month’s bulkstripped average sales figure – were asked to curl their fingers around the trigger? Strangely, the Telegraph neglected to say.
So I asked YouGov and discovered the sample for the poll was 2,000. That means “the public” referred to in the headline consisted of 1,100 Telegraph hearties. Sleep easy, Peter Wright.
How extraordinarily spiteful were some of the comments in rival newspapers that greeted Lord Black’s humiliation when forced to resign as chief executive of Hollinger International.
“He was just another executive with dodgy accounts stuck in another age,” wrote the anonymous author of The Guardian’s Business Notebook. There were others who could not, and did not, disguise their glee at the Telegraph Group boss’s embarrassment.
Over the years I have spent some time in the company of Black and, despite disagreeing with nearly every aspect of his political philosophy, I like him a lot. He is urbane and amusing and, despite an ego as big as Canary Wharf, advertises his belief in a man – or woman – upstairs wiser and more powerful even than he with the presence in his office of a bust of Cardinal Newman.
In his 1993 autobiography – written, typically, when he was only 47 – Black recounted how, as he neared taking control of the Berry family’s newspapers and his conversion to Roman Catholicism, he visited the Brompton Oratory in London.
Kneeling at the altar rail to receive communion, although strictly not yet supposed to do so, he was astonished when an elderly nun on her knees beside him whispered: “Good luck with the Telegraph. We all read it.”
If I were Lord Black, I would be back at the Oratory next Sunday looking for that nun.
As much as I am loath to bite the hand that fed me – very tasty canapÃ©s they were, too – I cannot help but wonder at the bizarre nature of the guest list for the Daily Mirror’s 100th birthday bash at the Science Museum in Kensington.
As a former deputy editor and the author of a new history of the paper, I joined former editors Tony Miles, Mike Molloy, Richard Stott and David Banks at the event.
Geoffrey Goodman and Felicity Green, both former eminent editorial executives, were also there, as were three other notable ex-Mirror staffers, politician Gerald Kaufman, television quizmistress Anne Robinson and Alastair Campbell, until recently the prime minister’s head mouthpiece (yes, the PM turned up, too).
The trio of celebrities who had worked for the paper before themselves becoming newsworthy bridged the chasm between the relatively few Mirror journalists past and present and the rest of the freeloaders panting through the doors. Together with Cilla Black and Paul O’Grady, Michael Winner and Simon Cowell – Simon Cowell, for heaven’s sake – they formed a sort of famous faces mÃªlÃ©e in the middle of the hall that houses a Mirror centenary exhibition.
Why the event was more like a meeting of a celeb mutual admiration society than a celebration of the paper and its history, I cannot imagine.
Neither, I suspect, can such onetime Mirror luminaries as Keith Waterhouse, showbusiness writer Donald Zec, political editor Terence Lancaster, leader writer Joe Haines, foreign correspondent turned academic Anthony Delano and those who made the sports pages great, such as Don Canadine-Bate and Ian Watson – just a handful of Mirror names from the not-so-distant past who were conspicuous by their absence.
Writing in The Guardian, current Mirror editor Piers Morgan noted: “Not to put too fine a point on it, we are all getting slightly unhinged about fame and those we worship as celebrities.”
You said it, Piers.
Bill Hagerty is editor of British Journalism Review. He’ll be back in the new year
Next week: Alison Hastings
by Bill Hagerty