Jan 29, 2009

Business - U.K. media — the reality behind all that jazz out of london

Hasan Suroor

Like the middle classes, that they mostly cater to, British newspapers are pretty good at keeping up appearances. So, we have ultra-glossy weekend supplements that run into hundreds of pages, an ever-expanding line-up of fat-cat columnists (never mind if what they write seldom rises above the level of Westminster Village chatter), and expensive design “revamps” every few months, the latest being a “new-look” Saturday Times. It follows a revamped Independent and The Independent on Sunday which, in turn, followed a revamped Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph. (Or was it the other way round?)

Looking at Britain’s leading newspapers you’d think they’re having a ball while everyone is moaning about recession and job losses. But, in effect, it is more like the apocryphal story of a broke nawab who famously wore specially — polished shoes to conceal their real condition: under those shining uppers there were no soles! The grim reality behind all that jazz — glossy supplements, star columnists and lavish revamps — is that British newspapers are in deep crisis with threat of closures and redundancies looming across the industry. And the bad news is that things are set to get worse with one leading media pundit — Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism at London’s City University — predicting the collapse of at least “one major newspaper company” this year.

Even before the current recession, the British newspaper industry — like its counterparts in mainland Europe and America — had been struggling mainly because of increased competition from the internet and television. Plunging revenues and readership forced newspapers to innovate and diversify into other media-related activities, including slick online editions, to recoup some of the losses and keep their brand visibility alive. The collapse of the economy, however, has made things more difficult and any hope they may have had of a recovery appears to have vanished.

Last week, the crisis claimed its first casualty as one of Britain’s oldest newspapers , beset with mounting losses, was sold to a Russian billionaire by its owners (the influential right-wing Mail Group of newspapers) for what was described as a “very nominal sum” of one pound.

The 181-year-old London Evening Standard, which was reported to be losing at least £10 million a year, is now the property of Alexander Lebedev, a former KGB agent, who says he “fell in love” with the paper when he was posted in London in the eighties as Economic Attaché in what was then the Soviet embassy. Mr. Lebedev, who made his fortune in the financial sector in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and co-owns the pro-democracy Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, has not ruled out further acquisitions in Britain amid speculation that he has the loss-making Independent and its sister publication Independent on Sunday in his sights.

Meanwhile, “substantial” redundancies are expected at the Standard with at least ten per cent of its staff likely to be laid off. Questions are being asked whether Mr. Lebedev is a “fit person to own an influential newspaper,” as The Guardian wondered, but the fact is that given the scale of its losses and the dire state of the industry there were no other takers for it. The alternative was worse: closure. It is a choice that more newspapers may face in coming months.

Trouble is also brewing in television with the public-owned Channel 4, which funded Slumdog Millionaire, on the verge of collapse with its annual deficit predicted to rise to £150 million over the next three years. The government is considering a range of options to save it including a money-sharing arrangement with the BBC and privatisation: rather an ironical end to a project which was launched as an alternative to the BBC’s “establishment voice” on the one hand, and commercial broadcasting on the other.

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The Miliband saga

While the official line remains that Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s gaffe-afflicted India visit was a success, the view in more independent circles is slightly different.

At least one commentator has compared his “awfulness and incompetence” in India to the bizarre conduct of the famously inept Conservative foreign secretary of the 1930s, Lord Halifax , who on an important visit to Germany in 1938, mistook a “beaming Adolf Hitler for the doorman” and handed him his hat!

“Relations between the two countries were never quite the same after that,” wrote The Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle and — apropos of Mr. Miliband’s actions in India — added that he had “annoyed one of the few allies Britain has left in the world.”

Sounds harsh? Well, there have been harsher comments including one that called him “an embarrassment strutting the world stage.” For someone who wanted to be prime minister, could it get more embarrassing than this?

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