MEDIA: Papers mustn’t flinch from reporting their owners fairly

The Times made a serious mistake last week. It panicked in the face of a big story involving its proprietor.

The Times made a serious mistake last week. It panicked in the face

of a big story involving its proprietor.



But the event has served a purpose, focusing attention on an urgent

professional issue. How do newspapers handle stories involving

themselves, their oweners and their associated business interests? The

answer is obvious: with great difficulty. So, is it not time for a

clean-up?



By failing to report - until Saturday - the furore over the Chris

Patten/Harper Collins story and Rupert Murdoch’s influence in turning

the book away from his publishing company - the Times has damaged

itself. (Raymond Snoddy, its distinguished media editor has fought a

spirited rearguard action this week to rescue his reputation.) Readers

must trust their newspaper to bring them a fair selection of the day’s

events, or they stop buying.



The odd thing is that the Times has recently managed to cope, quite

successfully, with more minor and routine conflicts of interest. Times

commentators can be rude about the quality of Sky Sports. And Ted

Turner’s blast, last November, against Murdoch was accurately

recorded.



It is also true that whenever Murdoch is involved in some dastardly

deed, there is an overreaction. Patten’s book will achieve far better

sales - and newspaper serialisation offers - because of the row. In the

past few days apologists have rushed into the breach, to remind us that

every single national newspaper has its own agenda. It is also a fact

that they have huge problems reporting stories about themselves - while

relishing the problems of rivals.



Yes, proprietors do intervene in their own way. The Express, for

example, has adopted a Blairite political line since Lord Hollick, a

part-time adviser to the Government, took it over. It’s partly that

we’ve forgotten how much more blatant the use of papers to further

proprietorial interests used to be in the 1980s.



Robert Maxwell at Mirror Group Newspapers made himself a laughing stock

with devices such as a serialised hagiography. Tiny Rowland displayed

the unacceptable face of proprietorial power by ordering up the special

Thursday edition of the Observer (30 March 1989) to publish the leaked

DTI report into the Al Fayed takeover of Harrods.



There has to be a better way, especially in an era of renewed interest

in newspaper ethics. Every newspaper, even the Guardian, is part of a

multi-media group. The editor should lay down a line that it will treat

the reporting of its proprietor and/or company interests no differently

to anything else. He or she should also recognise that media writers are

in the front line, and have to be free to exercise their professional

skill and judgment. It’s not just war correspondents who need to be

brave.



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