Will freedom of the press go the same way as old English apples?

Changes
to the distribution laws could give supermarkets control over the
diversity of the UK’s press, says Press Gazette editor Ian Reeves

I’d like to start with a lament. It’s taken from a piece I read last
month by the environmental journalist George Monbiot, in which he finds
himself in tears while reading an old book about varieties of English
apple.

“Then you see it,” Monbiot writes.

“It’s the names. The names of the fallen.

Foxwhelp,
Sheep’s Snout, Duck’s Bill, Black Wilding, Ramping Taurus, Monstrous
Pippin, Burr Knot, Hagloe Crab, Eggleton Styre, Skyrme’s Kernel,
Peasgood’s Nonesuch, Bastard Rough Coat, Bloody Turk. The list runs
into thousands.

It is a history of rural England, a poem in
pomology, rough and bitter and sad. One is struck by how very much
we’ve lost – and we don’t even know we’ve lost it. Here is an entire
world of forgotten lore, hard-won by our forebears and now largely
squandered.”

The apples on Monbiot’s list, of course, no longer
exist. And he doesn’t look very far for the cause. “We walk into the
abstract microcosm of the supermarket,” he says, “and encounter a very
few standard varieties – Macintosh, Red Delicious, Yellow Delicious,
maybe a half dozen others – all bred now to present a uniform,
blemish-free appearance. All individuality abstracted away. That is
what most of us now know as an ‘apple’.”

Even the most hard-hearted captain of industry would be hard pressed not to feel a tinge of sadness reading these words.

Now,
apples are one thing. But something infinitely more precious, and far
more important than varieties of fruit, is currently under threat. This
is not about a sentimental look back into the past, but a genuine fear
for the future.

It’s about the diversity of the press. In effect, diversity of thought.

The
UK is blessed with one of the most – if not the most – vigorous,
entertaining, informative and passionate publishing industries in the
world.

Our newspapers and magazines help in no small part to make
us into the nation we are. Their pages form our opinions, break our
news, fuel our interests, solve our problems, widen our horizons and
host the debates that help to define who we are.

Their freedoms
to publish have been hard won over more than three centuries, gained
after battles with kings, churches, governments and tax collectors.

But now they face a more subtle threat from a different powerful force.

Subtle
because the issue at the heart of it actually sounds too boring to be
that important. It concerns the way that newspapers and magazines are
shifted around the country.

The crucial element of it, though, is
that as things stand, every shop, petrol forecourt, newsagent or
supermarket can in effect stock as wide a range of titles as they
choose, selling for the same price. So Mrs Miggins in John O’Groats can
stroll down to her local newsagent and buy a newspaper and a magazine
for exactly the same price as her sister in Land’s End can, or Cherie
Blair can in Central London. Such a beautifully equitable state of
affairs may not exist for too much longer, though.

In the name of
greater competition for wholesalers, supermarkets are about to be
handed the power – so far largely denied them – to take control. And
Mrs Miggins’ newsagent might well be the first casualty.

So what,
you might say, if Tesco, Sainsbury and the like do end up as the place
where everybody goes to get their newspapers and magazines? It’s handy,
isn’t it? You can get them when you do your big shop.

Except, of
course, that newspapers are a daily habit. And they are the most
perishable item produced by any manufacturer of any product in the
world.

An edition of a regional evening paper, for example, has
an on-sale time of just a few hours. Similarly, many magazines, have an
effective shelf life of considerably less than a week. Mrs Miggins
cannot make the 30-mile journey to her nearest supermarket that often.

Supermarkets are also only interested in stocking things that sell in big numbers.

It’s one of the reasons that the Monstrous Pippin and the Bastard Rough Coat don’t exist any more.

Everything has to earn its place on the shelf. A magazine that only shifts 60,000 copies a week might be out on its ear.

And with all those newsagents now closed, it would have nowhere else to go.

Supermarkets would in effect be deciding which titles succeed or fail.

And
it’s hardly going to be a decision based on cultural diversity. One
publisher told me recently he knew of a supermarket that didn’t even do
its own magazine ‘range review’ – it asked a distribution company to do
it instead.

At this point, yet another spectre raises its head.
That of supermarkets deciding not only which magazines and newspapers
they sell, but what goes in them. Sounds far-fetched? Well, it’s
already happening. The publishers of certain mainstream magazines aimed
at the men’s market are already finding that their covers are subject
to scrutiny.

So far, the criteria they are judged on are all about taste and decency.

But
this could be the thin end of a very dangerous wedge – what if a
supermarket chain objected to one newspaper’s business coverage? If a
significant percentage of that paper’s copies were sold in that
company’s stores, the potential consequences are not difficult to
foresee.

And if that sounds far-fetched, last month Marks &
Spencer withdrew its advertising – worth an estimated £3m – from
Associated Newspaper titles because its bosses felt that stories about
their company were being portrayed too negatively in the group’s papers.

Is
it far-fetched to imagine a retailer refusing to carry titles if they
were advertising its rivals’ products? Or imagine how a future debate
on GM foods would be affected when so many vested interests had a
stranglehold on how and when those papers got into their
readers’ hands. We’d be mourning a lot more than the lost taste of
a Foxwhelp apple.

This is an edited version of a speech Ian Reeves gave at a PPA-sponsored House of Commons debate

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