14 MARCH 1998, Page 27


They said it before, but let's hope the Irish really spend more on the Indie now


ost exactly four years after buying into the Independent titles, Mirror Group Newspapers is selling its share at a consid- erable loss. From the moment of its first involvement until now, I do not think I have ever had a good word to say about the Mirror's management of these newspapers. But it would be a fitting thing to congratu- late the company on its departure.

The hero of the hour is Kelvin MacKen- zie, who became number two at Mirror Group at the beginning of the year. In my column of 24 January, I predicted that Mr MacKenzie's instinct would be to offload the Independent titles, for which he has lit- tle or no affection. I foresaw that the for- mer editor of the Sun would become by default the unlikely hero of the chattering classes, who still hold the Independent dear.

He has run true to form. It was MacKen- zie wot did it. David Montgomery, chief executive of Mirror Group, was not keen to sell the titles. It was he who had originally invested in them in the hope of establishing a broad-based newspaper group. But his own position is weak, the Independent has lost a lot of money for the Mirror Group and he could not withstand Mr MacKenzie. As I write, the deal has not been complet- ed, but it seems practically certain that the sole owner of the Independent will soon be Independent Newspapers of Ireland, which previously held 46 per cent.

It is, for several reasons, cause for cele- bration. Mirror Group is out. The Indepen- dent will now be run by the Irish, who have essentially been passive junior partners for the past few years. At last the Irish appear to realise that the strategy of continuous cost-cutting which they have supported has helped reduce the papers to their present rickety state. They are now talking of investing an extra £10 million pounds a year for four years. They also say that they will take the Independent upmarket, where- as Mr Montgomery's latest brain-wave was to plunge it further into the nether regions.

My heart is exultant, but I cannot rid my head of certain worries. In the first place the Irish spoke once before of investing in the Independent and did nothing. Tony O'Reilly, chairman and owner of 27 per cent of the Irish group, said in March 1994 that the Independent was crying out for investment. He then went along with the programme of cost-cutting which David Montgomery had instituted. I have no rea- son to doubt the word of the Irish when they talk now of editorial investment, but I can't forget they have done so once before.

In the second place, one wonders how much the Irish really understand quality newspapers. They own broadsheet newspa- pers in Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand but, although they do not like to be reminded of this, none of these titles is a quality paper in the sense that we under- stand the term. Certainly they can bring more expertise than David Montgomery, a former editor of the News of the World, but it is not as though the Washington Post Company or the New York Times is step- ping into the breach. The Irish have to show that when they talk about making the Independent a proper quality newspaper again they understand the terminology.

They will have the services of Andrew Marr as editor-in-chief. This is the same Mr Marr who was sacked six or seven weeks ago as editor of the Independent, having been responsible for a catastrophic re- launch last September. But Mr O'Reilly has a very high opinion of Mr Marr — or per- haps he doesn't know anyone else — and so when the Irish decided to buy the Mirror's stake he was the obvious person for them to turn to. In future, when any other Fleet Street editor is led out of his office to the knacker's yard, he will be able to draw com- fort from Mr Marr's unprecedented come- back.

But will it work? The trouble is that the two Independent titles already have an edi- tor, Rosie Boycott, who displaced Mr Marr. Ms Boycott is to continue in her post, while Mr Marr will preside over the comment pages of the Independent and Independent on Sunday. But he will also range more widely across both papers and be responsi- ble, at any rate in a strategic sense, for the elevation of the news pages, over which Ms Boycott with her more popular touch has 'There it goes again, a sort of spinning noise day-to-day control. The demarcation line between their jobs has not been clearly drawn, and I'm not sure it can be. The potential for destructive bickering seems almost limitless. When a paper is low in the water it really needs one decisive person to get it out.

So I expect some difficulties and a good deal of gnashing of teeth before the Inde- pendent soars back to its rightful place in the firmament. Let us, however, be of good cheer. At least the Irish have the right idea about where the newspaper should go and what it should do. They have plenty of money — Independent Newspapers is capi- talised at about one billion pounds — and it is a dynamic company. So when things go wrong, as they undoubtedly will, I don't expect it will be the instinct of Tony O'Reil- ly and the Irish to cut and run. They are involved with these newspapers for the long term, and that must be a good thing for the British press.

Last week, in writing about the Harper- Collins affair, I alluded to further accusa- tions that had been brought against my old friend Peter Stothard, editor of the Times. Jonathan Mirsky, until recently the paper's East Asia editor, alleged at a recent forum on press freedom that 'the Times has simply decided, because of Murdoch's interests, not to cover China in a serious way.' According to Dr Mirsky, in the three months following the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese last June, readers of the Times 'would have thought that Hong Kong had been airlifted up to Pluto, that it had simply vanished.'

All this was plastered over the Daily Tele- graph, which jumped to the justifiable con- clusion that Mr Stothard had been practis- ing passive censorship on behalf of his boss, Rupert Murdoch. Mr Stothard responded to these charges in a rather dignified piece in his newspaper. He hinted that he had been quite aware of Dr Mirsky's antagonis- tic feelings about the Chinese regime when he hired him. He did not, however, entirely explain his paper's lack of interest in Hong Kong since last June. I think I may be able to. It is that Dr Mirsky's in-depth pieces were considered too challenging for the Times's slightly 'dumbed-down' foreign pages. Dr Mirsky may have been censored not for being anti-Chinese but because he was too taxing for the Times.