If You Ask Me: Simon Jenkins

Asked what he says to the many would-be journalists who contact him for advice, Simon Jenkins says he has no hesitation in encouraging them to follow him into the profession he has worked in for more than 40 years.

"There's never a dull day. I can't imagine a better career," he says. "The normal things that bright young people want out of life: travel, meeting new people, not to be bored – journalism offers all of them."

Jenkins' move to The Guardian in 2005 from The Times, after 15 years on News International titles, came as a surprise, but he has maintained the link by writing a column for The Sunday Times.

Jenkins recently wrote a piece criticising The Guardian for publishing a special section called Promised Lands that was paid for by the Government's Housing Market Renewal partnerships.

His objection was that, although the synopsis was agreed by the Partnership and it set out to promote the controversial Pathfinder housing policy, there was no "advertisement feature" tagging to alert readers to this.

He acknowledges that his bosses were upright in allowing him to write such a critical piece.

Jenkins, 63, who has been married to actress Gayle Hunnicutt since 1978, was appointed at the age of 25 as a leader writer by long-serving Evening Standard editor Charles Wintour in 1968 and owes much of his early career to the man he describes as his "mentor".

Jenkins flourished under Wintour, becoming a specialist on London for the paper, and then features editor.

Another newspaper legend, Harold Evans, then took him on as editor of The Sunday Times' "Insight" investigative unit – a job that Jenkins admits was "not a happy time".

The likes of Bruce Page and John Barry and experienced reporters such as Peter Pringle and Phillip Jacobson were fighting for limited space.

Wintour took him back to the Standard as deputy editor. Then in 1977, aged only 33, Jenkins became the Standard's editor.

Jenkins says being an editor is like being a politician: "It's almost entirely a question of when you're there and what the circumstance was in which you were trying to do what you were doing."

His time at the Standard was overshadowed by negotiations between the Express Group, which then owned it, and Associated Newspapers, the publishers of the rival Evening News, over the paper's future.

When a merger of the two titles was eventually agreed, the editorship went to the News's Louis Kirby.

After a stint at The Economist, Jenkins went to The Sunday Times as a columnist before he got his second chance at an editorship, replacing Charles Wilson at The Times from 1990 to 1992.

An enthusiastic supporter of Murdoch's move to Wapping because of his conviction that the power of the unions had to be broken, Jenkins was charged with the task of fighting off the four-year-old Independent. Jenkins says he achieved this in his two years in charge before Peter Stodhart took the helm.

"I've written opinion journalism all my working life and I think, for the first time in my life, I genuinely don't know what the concept of the columnist is going to be in 12 years' time."

Every rough assumption one's had about the character of their newspaper, about the image of the newspaper, the collectivity of the newspaper, is clearly being challenged by the web.

I'm left half the time thinking I'm a classical, slightly pretentious, essayist, the other half of the time I'm a ranter in a pub. The first you get paid for, the second comes free, so why should anyone pay?

I've always believed newspapers are about two things: collecting and disseminating information and helping readers form views. When I was younger, people tended to think the latter would wither, that all people wanted from newspapers was information, and they wanted to form their own opinions. So get lost columnist, get lost editorial writer. Leader columns were thought to be defunct.

That was wrong, and it's abundantly clear that people buy newspapers because they want something to help them steer their thoughts along lines they, in some sense, sympathise with.

When I started there weren't any columnists and now they are very highly paid. The reason is that most people who buy newspapers tend to cite them as the reason they bought it. Whether what I've lived through is the rise and fall of the columnist is a question I simply can't answer, but I rather sense I have.

I have seen its heyday. I've come right through that to the era of the serious analyst, quasi-essayist and the ‘I' columnist, who writes about what they did last week, through to a certain form of stardom and maybe now down the other side.

"I refuse to underplay columnists. I think they are a very important part of public debate."

People say it's The Sun wot won it but I don't agree. I don't think individual newspapers sway people's opinion.

Many people buy the paper that agrees with them, so the idea of them having their mind changed by reading something is a bit odd. That said, I wouldn't do what I do if I didn't think I could try to persuade your point of view. People will either appreciate what you say, because they agree with it already, or in some sense have their mind changed.

All my life I've gone backwards and forwards between editing and writing, always assuming I'd end up writing because it's the one that lasts.

I've enjoyed both absolutely equally. I ran the Evening Standard when I was much too young and it was absolute chaos, but unbelievable fun.

Trying to put The Times back on its feet was a huge challenge and I felt I did it. But I always knew that all careers end somewhere and I always wanted my career to be writing columns for The Times.

It was a difficult relationship to break, but I felt that at 60 you either change now or you are never going to change, and I thought what Alan [Rusbridger] was doing at The Guardian was hugely exciting.

I think at a certain stage you've developed a voice, you've developed a point of view, you've developed half a dozen themes that you have to be careful you don't bat on about, but you tend to stick with them and hope that something new comes along. I really just wanted a different audience.

"The Guardian is the new establishment."

The Sunday Times is difficult to characterise – it's a huge operation, it's very successful. It's clearly the middle-brow of a right-of-centre disposition and it's the most-read quality paper in Britain.

The Guardian is the paper that government with a small ‘g' reads. You absolutely know that the person you target, they are going to see it.

The thing that's most amazing about The Guardian is that half its readership is now American. Although you can firmly say it's a British newspaper, it's increasingly an American audience we write for.

"I think I'm naturally reckless, so I wasn't anxious about writing a piece that involved mild criticism of the paper."

I was rung up by people on the other side of that argument who were rather shocked and wondered what redress they had. They were very angry.

They knew I was of their persuasion, and after talking to them I decided to write something that reflected that point of view. I could see that it cost Alan, but it's to the paper's credit that it published the piece.

It's difficult, I know, I've been in that position. At The Times we had endless battles. I think all newspapers are gazing at ghastly losses and they are under intense pressure from sophisticated public relations to cut ethical corners – no question about it, all papers are. I just believe they need to be on triple guard if they are going to retain the faith of their readers.

The reason for going on The Guardian website or The Times website is that you trust the people who give you the information.

You assume they've checked it out, that they find out who the person giving them information is, and they present it to you in such a way that you feel both sides and cases have been represented. If you can't do that they will go to The New York Times – the whole world is one web.

I feel very strongly that, at a time when newspapers are under great pressure, journalists have to fight even harder to retain their position.

"The Sixties were a great time to be working on a London paper, but every day was a battle."

There was a large group of us. It was an extraordinary cohort – there were some great journalists. I don't know why, but I think there was something about the Evening Standard – Max Hastings, Mary Kenny, Jeremy Deedes, Valerie Grove.

I was there at the age of 24 or 25. It was the 1968 frenzy, a very exciting time. London was swinging and the Evening Standard had cast itself as the journal of swinging London.

Producing a paper was a battle every night against the unions. An IRA bomb would go off and you ask for a new edition, they'd say that's going to be £1,000. A man is landing on the moon and you want a special supplement, that's going to be £10,000. It was completely corrupt, no question about it.

"The Times' Insight team was over-staffed with real talent – everybody was fighting for space and it was pretty lethal."

The Insight team wasn't a very happy time. You had 20 star journalists – people such as David Leitch and Bruce Page falling over each other, and we only had eight columns to fill. It could be months before your story got in. It could be very demoralising.

"It was probably one of the few times a Times editor had been explicitly told to go upmarket."

The Sunday Times was completely different. The unions had been battered by Wapping and Rupert Murdoch had felt that he had let the paper go too down-market. I was working on The Sunday Times and had not wanted to go back to editing very much.

But Rupert was extremely explicit and said I want you to see off The Independent, and you don't say no. I said at the time, I want a Times that the bishops want to read again. And we did it. I think by the end of two and a half years we had basically seen off The Independent. I think it never really recovered. I'm delighted that we did.

It was a huge undertaking – I reckon we were trying to sell The Times for today's equivalent of £2 a copy, that was before predatory pricing, and with 10 per cent cuts in staff costs. There were still demonstrations outside and the BBC were refusing to speak to us.

The behaviour of the rest of the press about Wapping was just outrageous. So fighting all this was quite exciting. I got so angry with what I can only describe as the smugness with which people treated Murdoch's move to Wapping and I just passionately believed in Wapping.

Those bastards had it coming to them. They had to be fought, everyone knew that, but no one had the guts to stand up to them, except Murdoch and Charlie Wilson. They stood up to them and the rest of Fleet Street benefited but did nothing but jeer and sneer. It was pretty unpleasant at the time.

"I told Rupert I was going to work for Andreas at The Independent and I didn't think The Times was much of a paper. He told me your job will be to make it a paper you would want to write for."

When I took over The Times I told staff The Independent has put its tanks on our lawn and we need to get them off. The Independent is trying to be The Times and it's only going to stop if we recruit some of their people. They had recruited a team of writers, many of them from The Times, and we had to get them back and make them believe this was a paper worth writing for.

"Andreas [Whittam Smith], in founding The Independent, transformed quality journalism in Britain."

He suddenly made it seem exciting – from being frankly a dreary drift down-market, with everyone moving towards homogenisation, Andreas created a paper that seemed to make it so much more exciting. British newspapers are the best in the world.

Even The Telegraph has had a new lease of life. The Independent has shrewdly carved out a zany corner of the market of its own, so it is not simply trying to get readers from the other papers. The Times is a good newspaper, but my only sadness is that the exigencies of the Wapping presses meant that it had to go into this extremely uncomfortable tabloid format.

The Independent has been most successful at designing an editorial package that suits the format, but I often think they are still squeezing the old Times into this format.

"All my life I've been told newspapers were dead."

In the early part of my career, everyone was telling me I should get out of print, television is where it's at. I don't know why, but people do want to go on reading newspapers. They're light, handy, you can carry them around, they don't need a battery. They are also a badge, a symbol of who you are.

I think the web is complementary to the newspaper, it won't kill readership.

The person I most admire…

Anyone's career has been dotted with people they admire. That kindergarten of Charles Wintour was quite remarkable. Charles's ability to encourage you by printing stuff that he shouldn't have printed because he had faith in you was remarkable. He was a remarkable man, under-honoured and a great mentor.

The worst bollocking I ever got…

I remember writing a column and as he walked past, he dropped it on my desk and said: "It's not your best". I remember thinking, that's all I do, I write columns and now I've got half an hour. I've never written so fast. I've never forgotten that, because all he said was "Not your best", knowing what I would do next was rip it up and work at getting something that was better.

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