John McLellan: How popular press proves its worth

Marie Colvin: in the finest tradition of war reporters. Picture: PA
Marie Colvin: in the finest tradition of war reporters. Picture: PA
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Quality journalism needs to be subsidised, writes the editor of The Scotsman

Much was written yesterday about veteran war correspondent Marie Colvin, killed while reporting on the Syrian civil war, and much of the commentary surrounding her death compared her journalism with the reporting currently under the microscope at the Leveson Inquiry.

Colvin was indeed in the finest tradition of war reporters, thrusting herself into danger in order to bring home the truth of what was going on at the front line in an attempt to reveal the human tragedy that lies at the heart of every conflict. That such work is essential is beyond doubt, and neither is the fact that most journalists would not put themselves through the hardships endured by war correspondents. Sitting here in a well-appointed office in one of the safest cities in the world, I am no different.

We live in a risk-averse world, with offices up and down the land festooned with posters warning us about how to lift heavy boxes, to watch out for stray cables and other mortal dangers. How the likes of Colvin and our own Ruth Sherlock must have laughed when they came home from places like Misrata and Homs to see what passes for risk here. And then of course there are the insurance policies: the cost of insuring a journalist anywhere near a war zone is astronomical.

But as many others have said better than I in the past 36 hours, nothing should get in the way of the job people like Colvin did and there is a real danger that a combination of risk aversion, the collapse of media company revenues and a crushing of the Press by over-regulation means that supporting staff like Marie Colvin becomes well-nigh impossible.

While critics will argue that a healthy Press should be able to sustain the work of war correspondents and other specialists, the fact is that providing such coverage is hugely expensive and someone has to fund it. In the case of Marie Colvin, her paper, the Sunday Times, has been loss-making for a considerable amount of time, as has its sister the Times.

The truth of News International is that the fine work of journalists like Marie Colvin has been bank-rolled by the success of News International’s popular papers, namely the Sun and the News of the World. Their robust style of journalism, now much derided by the chattering classes, was what paid the bills and losing the latter was a mortal blow to the entire group. Not surprisingly Rupert Murdoch was keen not to let the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry hand the entire popular Sunday market to his rivals and the birth of the Sun on Sunday was only a matter of time.

The fact remains that quality journalism is expensive to produce and apart from the Daily Telegraph, all national quality titles are losing money and need a subsidy.

So when the Sun on Sunday hits the streets this weekend, there will be sighs of relief not just from those old News of the World hands who were kept on for the purpose, but from the newsrooms of the Times and the Sunday Times. They need successful popular sisters more than anyone.

Balm for Salm

Mr Murdoch has entered the Scottish independence fray, tweeting that First Minister Alex Salmond is the “most brilliant politician in the UK” and urging Scotland to “go and compete”. It is therefore only a matter of time before the new seven-day Scottish Sun comes out formally in favour of independence. Most recently it urged readers to “Keep Salm and carry on” in last year’s election.

His old Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil (and, of course, my old boss here) also took to Twitter to remind us that this fitted in with the widely-held view that Mr Murdoch harbours a long-standing loathing of the British establishment and helping to achieve the break-up of Britain is part of that pattern.

Mr Murdoch is certainly not someone who likes to back a loser. Perhaps that’s why he was prepared to pull the plug on the News of the World so quickly.

One to Watch

Watch out for the Press being the subject of a new National Theatre of Scotland production sometime in the future, with the likely involvement of the brilliant Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan. If it’s done Black Watch-style, the chances are the language could be just as choice.

It will doubtless be very different to another production based on experiences at a Scottish newspaper, the Edinburgh Evening News. The old newsroom at North Bridge was used as the backdrop for none other than the Singing Kettle News. Denise Mina eat your heart out.