Jul 2001 Journal

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A worthy heir to Beaverbrook?

In 1899, on the eve of the Spanish-American War, the US newspaper magnate, Randolph Hearst, informed one of his employees that he was sending him to Cuba as a war correspondent. “War correspondent?” asked the reporter incredulously. “But there is no war in Cuba!” “You produce your reports”, replied Hearst “and I’ll produce the war.”

This anecdote came to mind during the General Election campaign when the Labour Party complained that the BBC, ITV and Sky were actually making the news instead of simply reporting it. Earlier that same week the unsavoury media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi had become Prime Minister of Italy (a key EU state with the fifth largest economy in the world.) It is an unfortunate, but apparently inescapable, fact of modern life that tycoons can use their financial clout to acquire news media and influence public opinion. Sometimes, however, public opinion can exert a counter-influence, which, for instance, explains why the Murdoch press in this country has taken up a maverick stance in recent general elections.

Rupert Murdoch owns titles both at the top end (The Times) and the bottom (The Sun) of the newspaper range, which leaves the qualitative middle ground to be fought over by the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. For reasons quite unconnected to party politics the Express has recently been more in the business of making news than reporting it. This has a lot to do with the personality of its new proprietor, Richard Desmond, who apparently amassed his considerable fortune as a ‘porn merchant’. Since Desmond also happens to be a Jew – the second co-religionist to dabble in media tycoonery since the late unlamented Robert Maxwell – he raises well-founded concerns. In addition to his confrontational style and cavalier treatment of journalists, he stands accused of dumbing down the paper by switching its focus from politics and hard news to tittle-tattle about showbiz and sport celebrities. On the other hand, it could be argued in his defence that ever since the rise, first of TV and then of the Internet, UK newspaper readership has shrunk – and that any gimmick, however meretricious, that halts this decline is to be welcomed. Secondly, the battle to dominate the middle-range newspaper market has so far been going overwhelmingly in favour of the Daily Mail. That paper is politically so inflexibly partisan that boosting the circulation of the hitherto ailing Daily Express is actually a service to democracy, because it prevents the emergence of a monopoly news provider in the intermediate sphere between the broadsheets and the tabloid press.

There is much heartsearching nowadays about the disengagement, especially of the younger generation, from the political process. (On 7 June only 59 % of the electorate bothered to vote). If Desmond’s formula can prop up the Express by turning celebrity-obsessed young people into regular middle-range newspaper readers, this may count as one big plus to offset the many minuses he has so far piled up. After all, even Robert Maxwell’s record was not unrelievedly black. Whereas the period since the war had seen the number of national newspapers shrink – which refugee does not remember the late lamented News Chronicle? – Maxwell actually reversed the downward trend by creating The European.

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