Media: The tortoise and the Barclays: a strange story of our `Times’

Media: The tortoise and the Barclays: a strange story of our `Times’

Peter Cole

While Tony and Cherie move from Sir Cliff’s place to Bandana Berlusconi’s, newspaper editors, their senior executives and star writers move around Italy, France and the United States, often holidaying with each other so that they can keep the media chat going, and compete for volume of incoming emails on their go- anywhere wireless communication systems (usually with names like Raspberry or Grapeshot). The more energetic, or those less able to cope with absence from the print-face, find it necessary to pen words from wherever they are, bemoaning the decline in standards of French food and wine, or reflecting on the contrasting view of the world as seen through the prisms of BBC News 24 or CNN. There is much to think about in the villa.

These top people are usually concerned, or rather preoccupied, in August with what is to come in September and October, the traditional time for newspapers to Do Things. After the silly season, when news is light and must be creatively gathered, comes the Big Push. Relaunches, redesigns, new sections, promotional spend and TV advertising campaigns, all these lie ahead as an exciting antidote to the tedium of the August break.

This autumn’s big match is shaping up to be the Wapping Murdochs against the Canary Wharf Barclays. The new owners of the Telegraph titles, the Barclay brothers, David and Frederick, should be through all their regulatory and legal stages over the next week or so and, as we say in property transactions, have completed their deal. The Telegraph’s post-Conrad Black lacuna will be replaced with serious concentration on competition in the quality market, and that means the Telegraph and Times fighting it out for top spot.

This is a battle that has raged for years, most recently through price wars and format wars. Rupert Murdoch, publisher of The Times, drove up the sale and market share of his paper through slashing the price. The Telegraph was forced to do likewise, and used a variety of special offer devices as well. Most recently came tabloid Times, in the wake of The Independent’s successful launch of a compact format. This has had some success in increasing sales of Murdoch’s flagship title, and came at a time when the Telegraph was unable to respond because it had a For Sale sign on its front page. Latest score: Times 650,000; Telegraph 905,000.

Now battle will truly be joined. The Times devoted two days and many hundreds of words last week to an “expose” of the Barclays. This was at one level brave, because the Barclays are the sort of businessmen who vigorously defend their low profile and whose response to seeing their name in a newspaper they do not own is to talk to their lawyers. Ownership of national newspapers is a public role, and any scrutiny of owners is wholly legitimate. The public deserves to know about Express proprietor Richard Desmond’s other publishing interests, about the Northcliffe family history, about Conrad Black’s personal financial relationship with the group that owned his newspapers. It would have made a big difference to the lives of hundreds of Mirror employees if the corrupt practices of Robert Maxwell had been known about before his death. Of course a tycoon like Rupert Murdoch with multimedia interests all over the world should be monitored and investigated constantly. He is.

Equally the Barclays. Except that there has to be some substance if the results of inquiries are to be published, otherwise it looks like clutching at straws. For the record, the Times “investigation” into the Barclay brothers, published at such length in the dog days of August, “revealed” that as children they were suspects in the affair of the neighbour’s missing tortoise (later found), that they once lived in a “humble Victorian basement flat”, and that the corner shop tobacconist’s they once owned is now an “upmarket fish and chip shop”.

The killer blow in the Times revelations was The Bankruptcy. “Could a bankrupt brother be the secret behind Barclays’ passion for privacy and success?” asked the paper. Well could he? “For more than 40 years,” said The Times, “the Barclays have been haunted by the stigma of bankruptcy.” It was back to Candy Corner, the aforementioned shop. A sum of between pounds 300 and pounds 400 seems to have been involved. The responsibility, The Times admits, seems to lie with a third party.

If this is going to be the level of the street fighting as the Barclays take control of the Telegraph titles, for which they paid pounds 665m, then I fear it will rival archery as a spectator sport. I cannot see readers switching from the Telegraph to The Times on the basis of one tortoise and a bankruptcy hare.

The Barclays are treating the Times “revelations” with lofty disdain, planning to neither retaliate nor comment. One source close to the brothers explained: “It’s beneath our dignity. We are not going to get involved in any rebuff.”

Whatever the viewing figures for the Olympics I simply cannot believe that the nation’s complete disregard for archery, canoeing, judo, badminton, yachting and synchronised diving suddenly turns into passionate interest. What amuses me most is the earnest authority of the commentators who must have acquired their expertise on the sport in question, including the participants’ names, hours before trying to convince us of their encyclopaedic knowledge. When I hired Eddie Butler, former Wales rugby captain, now BBC commentator, as a rugby correspondent, some years ago, he did not go out of his way to impress upon me that archery was another string to his bow.

Spectator ripples continue to spread. We discussed recently the media attention given to Rod Liddle, one time BBC Radio 4 Today editor, and his relationship with Alicia Monckton, whom he met at The Spectator. Now we have the revelation (by the News of the World, Sun and Mirror) of a long relationship between the chief executive of The Spectator, Kimberley Fortier, and the Home Secretary, David Blunkett. The wheel turns, but The Spectator is always at the centre.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

DIARY

Copyright 2004 Independent Newspapers UK Limited

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