Mutatu Mutandis – or, Worse News at the ‘Observer’

Colin Legum

Fleet Street is a raging, under-reported battlefield. For most of the time it’s hard to discover what is going on, and even harder to know how much will be left of Britain’s national newspapers, or what state they will be in, at the end of the current battle of the tycoons. Most of these tycoons have little or no knowledge of owning or managing newspapers, and many of them are foreigners. There is no rule to prevent any foreigner from buying a British national paper, and Colonel Qadhafi himself tried to do so in the case of the Observer.

Readers have no say in the fate of their favourite paper; and shareholders are often kept in the dark. The affairs of newspaper owners seem not to belong in the public domain: indeed, the rival proprietors go to extraordinary lengths to keep the public in the dark about what is happening. When news leaked out in the Guardian (21 June) about the latest eruption in the Observer’s boardroom, Lonrho’s spokesman, Paul Spicer, was not concerned to confirm or deny the accuracy of the report: his only response was to warn that a search would be made to discover which of the directors had leaked the information and that the offender would be sacked. That’s the language of the new Fleet Street tycoons. David Astor, the former editor of the Observer, wrote in a letter to the Times: ‘To allow a newspaper catering to political sector X of our community to be taken over by a proprietor who is a militant member of political sector Y is, plainly, not in the interests of its readers. This is also true in ethical terms; a buccaneer is not a suitable proprietor of a paper trusted for its reliability.’

A rapid survey of the position in Fleet Street shows that at the Observer a state of civil war exists between its buccaneer proprietor, on one side, and its editor, his staff and its independent directors, on the other. Elsewhere, Beaverbrook’s old empire (Fleet Holdings) is a matter of contention: ‘Digger’ Murdoch and ‘Tiny’ Rowland are reported to have engaged in manoeuvres to divide up between themselves the Daily Express, the Sunday Express and the Star, with the intention of closing down the last in order to boost the fortunes of Murdoch’s rising Sun. (At least this was Rowland’s version of what was happening – Murdoch has denied it.) Robert Maxwell is trying to buy a 10 per cent share in Fleet Holdings from the, Australian tycoon Robert Holmes a Court for £15.4 million, while another bidder – it’s not clear whether or not he is a rival to Maxwell – is an Egyptian financier: Dr Ashrat Marwan, son-in-law of the late President Nasser and confidant of the late President Sadat, has been secretly buying up shares in Fleet Holdings on behalf of unspecified Middle Eastern interests. Already, with a 4 per cent holding in these Beaverbrook papers, he owns more than the present wielder of power there, Lord Matthews – the tycoon admirer of Mrs Thatcher – from Trafalgar Holdings. In yet another sortie into the Fleet Holdings battle Swiss bankers are believed to be buying shares eagerly – and again, they are buying them for unknown clients.

Another salient is represented by the Mirror newspapers (the ‘Voice of the People’). The Financial Times wrote on 16 June of developments in that quarter: ‘In the secretive world of national newspaper management’, Clive Thornton ‘is attacking the established order with the same enthusiasm that he brought to the task of chairman of Abbey National’. At the Sunday Times Murdoch’s new team have forced the departure of one of its political columnists, the deputy-editor, Hugo Young – a writer any newspaper might be glad to employ. As to what is happening at the Times – well, reading tastes differ: but who could ever have imagined that the Thunderer would seek to entice readers by conducting an up-market bingo game which is supposed to be more respectable because it is played with stocks and shares? On the outskirts of Fleet Street, the pro and anti-Moscow Communists are engaged in an internecine struggle of their own for the soul of what’s left of the Morning Star.

Reuter’s – originally set up as a non-profit-making venture to produce one of the world’s finest news services – has been stripped of its original charter because its accumulated wealth made irresistible the temptation to float its equity on the Stock Exchange and so enrich a few newspaper proprietors and senior staff – as opposed to using its assets to improve its foreign news service and to investing its surplus in strengthening the financial basis of the media. Whether the guarantees offered to protect the integrity of Reuter’s will stand the test of time remains to be seen.

A piece I wrote for the London Review of Books in November 1982 was headed ‘Bad News at the Observer’. The worst fears expressed there have been justified by subsequent events, which reached a crisis with the public quarrel between the paper’s proprietor and Lonrho’s boss, Roland ‘Tiny’ Rowland, in his Cheapside headquarters, and the editor, Donald Trelford. This began over an article Trelford wrote about atrocities in Zimbabwe. The main point made in 1982 was in line with evidence given to the Monopolies Commission by the paper’s former editor David Astor, by the chairman of the Observer Trust Lord Goodman, and by eight associate editors of the paper. The objection to the sale of the paper to Lonrho was that Rowland’s far-flung business interests would inevitably prove incompatible with the editorial independence of any newspaper he owned. And this, of course, is precisely what lay behind the row that began with Trelford’s report about events in Zimbabwe – a country from which Lonrho derives something like 8 per cent of its global profits. This 8 per cent makes it important for Lonrho to stay on good terms with Mugabe’s government. Before publishing what he had discovered in Matabeleland, Donald Trelford took the proper precaution of telephoning his proprietor to inform him of what he intended to say. Rowland’s response was predictable and revealing: ‘I hear you are trying to destroy my business in Zimbabwe.’ Not the response one might expect from a newspaper proprietor interested in printing the true facts about a major political event.

Although Rowland subsequently said the quarrel had merely been ‘a lover’s tiff, this was far from being the case. Behind the veil of kiss-and-make-up, an unsettling struggle has been going on, with Rowland keen to get rid not only of his editor but of three or four other senior staff members as well – notably the columnist Conor Cruise O’Brien, the financial writer William Keegan, and, in all probability, the political editor Adam Raphael. If he hasn’t sacked them yet, it may only be because he finds himself strapped in by the conditions attached to the sale of the paper. But Rowland is a very determined character – as is shown by his relentless fight with the House of Fraser over the future of Harrods. He is the kind of man who, whatever the cost (even if it runs into millions), and however rough and unpleasant the fight, allows nothing to prevent him from trying to get his way.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Nkomo: The Story of My Life, Methuen, 270 pp., £9.95, 18 April, 0 413 54500 8.