Business secretary Lord Mandelson today rejected a request from the Daily Mail & General Trust to do away with its requirement to maintain an independent editorial board for the Nottingham Evening Post.
The board, which has the power to hire and fire the newspaper’s editor, was set up to ensure that Nottingham’s only daily newspaper retained its editorial independence following DMGT‘s acquisition of it in 1994 from T Bailey Forman.
Abolition of the board would have led to greater control of the paper being ceded to the parent company. In the consultation process concerns were raised about the prospect of possible job losses through the centralisation of editorial processes such as sub editing if the board were to be disbanded.
Rejecting the proposal today Mandelson ruled that “legitimate concerns” remained for the Government about “too much influence becoming concentrated in too few hands”.
DMGT had made an application to the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills in April to do away the editorial board requirement claiming that a change in circumstances meant staff now operated independently without input from the board and the board itself believed this would continue to be the case should it be disbanded.
In addition, DMGT said significant changes in the industry had led to greater diversification and competition. It said that editorial independence would be protected as it was crucial to commercial success and that it was the policy of its regional newspapers business, Northcliffe Media, to respect the editorial freedoms of its editors.
Despite this Mandelson’s department said a “valid reason” still existed to retain the independent editorial board.
The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills ruling said: “The interest of ensuring people have access to a sufficiently wide range of views and opinions on both local and national matters and preventing too much influence becoming concentrated in too few hands remain legitimate concerns for the government.
“The original purpose behind requiring an independent editorial board for the NEP related to the desirability of ensuring the editor of that title remained free to take editorial decisions independent of the title’s new owner, Northcliffe.
“Those concerns remain relevant. While there is no evidence to suggest that the NEP editor’s editorial independence is currently constrained, the secretary of state considers that scope remains for the editorial board to serve a practical purpose as originally intended.”
The need for an independent editorial board was imposed in 1994 as one in a series of conditions on the sale of the newspaper after concerns were raised about the potential impact on the range of local opinions as DMGT owned a number of other newspapers in the region.
All but two of these conditions were revoked at a review in 2001, however the then Department of Trade and Industry ruled the Articles of the Association for the company running the Post still needed to include specific provisions guaranteeing the editor of the paper had complete freedom and control over editorial matters “without interference from the newspapers owners”.
In addition, the DTI ruled in 2001 the independent editorial board, whose role is to oversee editorial policy and for ultimately deciding on the appointment or dismissal of the editor, should also be retained.
The BIS said today that five unnamed parties had responded to its call for views on the DMGT request, all of which demand it be rejected over concerns about “restructuring and consolidation”.
The principle concerns of those parties centred on fears that editing functions at the Post being combined with those for other Northcliffe titles in the East Midlands region.
Concerns about possible job losses and the way redundancies could be handled were also raised.