Press & media

Whittam Smith, Andreas (3 of 4).  Oral History of the British Press

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  • Recording date

    2007-02-07, 2007-03-05, 2007-03-22

  • Interviewees

    Whittam Smith, Andreas, 1937- (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Brodie, Louise (speaker, female)

  • Abstract

    Part 3: When AWS went to become deputy city editor of the Daily Telegraph [DT] in 1966 he found it very old fashioned. The Berry family were proprietors. Their page 3 was a juicy transcript and they were right wing politically and solid. The city office was separate from the main building, opposite St Paul's Cathedral. Peter Eastwood was the tough editor, and for a time he punished AWS phoning him up at 11 pm several nights running to ask him to phone around and check a story. The sub editors rewrote all the copy, so it was a surprise when he later went to the Guardian and found his copy had gone onto the front page with no alterations. Much later at the Independent AWS tried to keep a balance between these two extremes. At the DT AWS never saw his colleagues and copy was taken by the wiremen. 1966-69 in the city saw the rise of the disputed take over, which had started in 1959, Tube Investments for instance, in fact the full development of this trend happened in the 1960s. [7:42] There was no regulation, there was a free for all. Morgan Grenfell bought Gallaghers. There was no small shareholder influence. AWS learnt by making mistakes, and his gift is to learn quickly. In the 1970s as editor of the Investors Chronicle [IC] he lost an edition. He received information that an employee was engaging in insider trading and sacked him. The staff were appalled and the journalists walked out. The point was made that he should have reacted more cautiously. [13:09] The DT was a big organisation. Story about stock market manoeuvres when AWS wrote something that Robert Maxwell had told him, causing a libel writ from Carr the News of the World proprietor. The proprietors looked after each other. AWS didn't lose his job. AWS liked being in Fleet Street, it was a community [16:18] He learnt that being number two (like Gordon Brown) means that you get tarnished, your record is there, so in 1969 AWS went to the Guardian as financial editor. Anthony Harris was famous. Alistair Hetherington [AH] was editor and they were all nice people. He learnt how to deal with prima donnas like AH, who would not say till the last moment if he had anything to contribute to an edition. The Guardian was a writers' paper. AWS believes in Thatcherism but also in 100% inheritance tax. He changed his writing style for this paper. It takes time to get used to the new readers. You see all the letters which come in to your desk. His favourite "green ink" letters were addressed to him, with copies to President Reagan and the Pope! [25:08] As editor of the Investors Chronicle he had total control. He was there from 1970 till 1977 which was a difficult period. There was the oil crisis in 1973, with the stock market at its lowest point since the war. They lost readership. An investigative story was about Sir Denys Lowson. AWS had a good reporter who bribed people to give the evidence, which was contract notes on fraudulent dealing. AWS realised afterwards that he had in fact financed stolen property. The story was a sensation and Lowson was charged. Since the 1930s small investors had had advantage taken of them. Some bits of the law were not precise. [33:31] Similarly with the Lloyds insurance underwriters. Everybody was doing it and they couldn't see it was wrong. Now MPs are cheating on their expenses. On the IC AWS had a good mix of young and old steady journalists. He remembers hiring Ann Sieghal because of her lovely coat. (She did have two degrees as well) Being a woman was not an issue, they fitted in. AWS had an all woman legal team on one libel case. [39:03] Their printers were in St Albans and they would go down there to look at the proofs. AWS would change the writing if just one person could not understand it. This was the time of the secondary banking crisis, before regulation. Story of the Nat West bank making the rumours worse. They were still using hot metal technology. [45:21] For a weekly paper it is difficult to be fresh. Material written on a Wednesday afternoon was printed on Thursday and distributed Friday. AWS didn't fire people but they were lost to the daily papers. They were a training ground for them and once AWS asked them to lay off recruiting from his staff. He believed in getting high quality staff. It was an important point in his life going to the DT again as city editor when Ken Fleet left in 1977. Bill Deedes [BD] was editor. [51:44] The proprietor sat on the fifth floor with a map of the world and a patch of grass on the parapet outside. AWS was asked to lunch, which has remained in his mind as Marmaduke Hussey arrived unexpectedly. There was a distortion in the circulation figures due to the lengthy strike at The Times which benefited the DT. At the editorial meeting every afternoon AWS would present suggestions. Example of an incident during the Iran Iraq war. His creative ideas were never accepted. He thought they should adapt the DT to take advantage of the new readers from The Times. BD and the proprietor, both in their 70s disagreed. BD hated pomp. Story. The paper got into real trouble in the mid 80s. This was the time that Eddy Shah [ES] started Today in the north of England. It was not properly done but shook everybody. Conrad Black, who goes on trial next week, bought the DT for a low price. [1:02:04] This was due to weak management and the feudal set up, even the managing director was part of the family. Their only interest was in getting the paper out. They were still using typewriters, the printers set the type in lead, then there was a copyholder and a reader to check, with different unions and money pouring out. [1:06:09] ES was challenging the Daily Mail but they had poor colour production, but AWS thought they had a good idea and there might be a place for a new paper at the broadsheet end of the market. There had been no innovation in Fleet Street for 30 years due to the unions. AWS made a suggestion for change but the head printer costed it out of sight. AWS felt intense frustration. [1:09:48] ES succeeded in Warrington. Thatcher had also outlawed secondary picketing at strikes. AWS felt there was a place for a newspaper that was politically impartial. RM bought Today as it gave him an entry into the Daily Mail market. [1:14:09] ES didn't come back into newspapers. AWS planned his new paper together with Matthew Symonds [MS] and Stephen Glover [SG] MS had loads of energy and SG filled the foreign slot. It was a hush hush operation till it was leaked over Christmas 1985. AWS then had no job and they hadn't even secured the first finance. His wife was in the picture and his sons were university age, so he had less responsibility for them. [1:22:06] AWS, the journalist, wanted to hire the management, the other way round from the usual way. They hired them. The merchant bankers Charterhouse came up with the first Đ3 million. It was a unique moment, then the pension funds came to invest. The last money came from Maxwell, which was not what they wanted, but AWS deliberately leaked the story to Private Eye to limit the damage. Then Maxwell fell off his boat. [1:30:40] They were aiming for readers aged 20-45 ABC1 and that is the position ever since. At their presentations the content was never questioned, only the figures. For any launch you will have high sales at first, then a down turn then straightening out. Saatchi did their marketing and the Independent newspaper became fashionable. [1:35:24] It was launched in October 1986. Journalists were unhappy at RM's Wapping plant where they had to be bussed in due to pickets. As well as them they recruited a managing director and others and had offices in London Wall, not as open plan as AWS would have liked, and then opened in City Road next to Bunhill cemetery. [1:40:39] They did lots of rehearsing for the launch. They did the page form of the paper and sent it to various readers to test and altered it accordingly. Then they delivered it to the newsagents to get the distribution right. The editorial team came together much better when it was for real. [1:44:28] The most difficult thing was to get the look of it right, there were two schools of thought, completely new and classic, so as not to frighten readers off. This won, it was "classic with a twist". In January 1987 the printers in Kent were snowed in, and so they had to change them. AWS saw the whole thing as an experiment, it was worth a bash. The financiers demanded a notable chairman, and they got Marcus Sief who saw it as a public duty. He was a great man. From the beginning, AWS decided on no royal coverage. This was a constant issue. They are basically republican. [1:54:40] The day to day items included the ending of the Iron Curtain and Tienamen Square. Their two big problems were RM's price cutting at The Times and the coming of good colour. The price cutting happened before the readers were loyal, and it was a nightmare period, without profits they had no independence. Black and white photos are more emotional and dominated the Independent. A third problem was that AWS lost his creativity and couldn't produce ideas as previously. They had to lose staff. [2:01:52] Then in 1994 they started the Independent on Sunday. [IoS].AWS found his creativity later, so it was odd that he lost it then, perhaps having to concentrate on business matters. There are two sorts of editors, the writing one up front and the impresario, good at organising, which was AWS. You need to be very quick at decision making, should you send someone overseas, or what photo to use. [2:07:14] The IoS was more of a drain than AWS had realised it would be, particularly on talent. Sunday papers bring in good revenue, but it never did well enough, and distracted management. Saturday papers got bigger and had more sections. [2:10:32] Relations with MS were always cordial. SG went to the IoS as editor and then AWS removed him. SG wrote an unpleasant book about AWS which was serialised in the Spectator. AWS takes criticism and never responds to it. But it was upsetting. [2:14:12] The old order always tends to reimpose itself. For instance AWS hates the lead story continuing over the page. The Independent does good supplements such as the one on East Europeans recently. The ethos of the paper is much the same as they established at the beginning. [2:19:53] The DT historically was a good paper for science subjects and still is. AWS reads 5 papers a day, plus several on the internet. [2:21:59] RM manipulates monopolies. Newspapers should not break the law, should not use deceit, but they should publish and be damned. AWS admits his mistakes. Paying for stories distorts things and AWS never did this. He never got too friendly with politicians, flattery can corrupt. Story of Geoffrey Howe. [2:28:29] As for advertising, you need a multiplicity of clients. The Independent has never managed to get classified advertisements in number. Local papers do it. Sly Bailey was good at this, now at the Mirror Group.

  • Description

    Life story interview with journalist Andreas Whittam Smith

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