Cut-throat rivalry partly to blame

 
Anthony Browne
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EARLY one morning in a village in southern France I went to buy a paper, and much to my amusement they only had yesterday’s Le Monde – but that day’s Times. The daily availability of British newspapers across Europe is a product of something the British seldom appreciate – their newspapers are by far the most competitive in the world, and in many ways the most powerful and professional.

The French intelligentsia are often snooty about the British press, but with nine daily national papers we have roughly 14 times the combined circulation of those in France.

Competition has helped drive standards up, in terms of quality, availability and value for money. Le Monde doesn’t print on Mondays because French journalists don’t like working on Sundays, but British journalists even work on Christmas day. Many European papers have still barely discovered colour printing. The power of the UK press is not just because British politicians tremble in front of it, but because the world media often follow its lead.

As a journalist for nearly two decades, it was always a source of pride seeing my articles syndicated around the planet.

Editors from across the globe look to British papers for tips on how to raise their game. Many of our papers, like City A.M., are free. The comparative lack of corruption in the UK is largely down to the competitive vigilance of the press.

But the downside of the extreme competitiveness is clear from the phone hacking scandal. Surplus

capacity means the industry as a whole is loss making; proprietors put pressure on editors to increase sales; editors put pressure on journalists to get scoops; journalists do things they shouldn’t. Some, in the case of phone hacking into Milly Dowler’s phone, are simply sickening.

It has long worried me that the media have power without responsibility; they are the guardians of our freedoms but no one guards the guardians.

A decade ago I wrote a cover story for the New Statesmen on corruption in journalism, pointing out the hypocrisy of journalists attacking politicians for practices they themselves indulge in (it won me no friends).

The British public’s indulgence of their out of control media could now be stretched beyond breaking point. Advertisers are putting their money where their mouth is, withdrawing sales to the News of the World.

If anything good comes out of all this, it should be a system that ensures hacks and their editors stay on the straight and narrow. Just as the expenses scandal led to politics being cleaned up, hopefully the phone hacking scandal will lead to the media being cleaned up.

Anthony Browne is a board member of theCityUK anthony@anthonybrowne.org