Press & media

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

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The British Library Board acknowledges the intellectual property rights of those named as contributors to this recording and the rights of those not identified.
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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 4: The Independent broke the mould and was innovative, for instance doing special coverage on health and education. It has been going for 20 years now. Simon Kellner is the current editor and has been for 9 years and is having to cope with the competition from the internet. The paper does this by being a views paper rather than a news paper. Being independent is different from being in the middle. AWS stepped down in 1994. The paper suffered from multi news channels on the TV and a new shareholder was brought in. An important lesson is that new inventions do not completely destroy the old, only a part of it. [6:30] TV knocked out the old newsreels but not all cinema. The internet knocks out classified advertisements in papers. The Guardian, Observer and FT spent hugely on websites without increasing their papers circulation or finance. Cross referencing of papers and the net can be helpful if clumsy. [10:11] There was nothing to be said when AWS was asked to go. He would have liked to get to 10 years. He was 57 and reckoned that he had 30 years more work, so he got on with his life. He has remained as a director. He had a good relationship with Andrew Marr when he was editor. He never comments on the paper though he doesn't approve of all articles. [14:51] AWS wanted to buy the Observer which went to Tiny Rowland in the end. He saw himself as another Cecil Rhodes and is a peculiar, vicious person. AWS saw the combined IoS and Observer as a counterweight to the ST. There was hostility from within as they thought he wanted to close down the Observer which was not true. The Observer has some good things in it [18:24] AWS then chaired an enquiry into homelessness among young people. He learnt a lot, particularly how life in care usually blights young people. In spite of bad education, they could be eloquent. The recommendations which they pinpointed were too vague and should have been addressed to the charities rather than the government. Details of these and other people on the committee. [24:18] Out of the blue AWS was asked to be Vice President of the film censors and accepted on the basis that one should always accept what one is asked to do. He was interviewed by a head hunter, whose questions he found a nuisance and then met the Home Secretary and the then Vice presidents. Nobody knows much about the British Board of Film Censors [BBFC] The criteria for labelling films had recently changed in an unclear way, and the customs police were raiding shops and confiscating videos. Story of interview with Jack Straw when AWS explained how he would publish the guidelines and clean up the system. He was made president (in 1997). [30:55] He found there were no files or guidelines. He demanded and got full authority for the president, though they all worked together. He watched all borderline films, many of which were unpleasant. You have got to be fresh and got to see the whole thing through. Some were unexpectedly fine pieces of work. The examiners would see them, could stop and start sequences, and would look for precedents, as you had to be consistent. Then you could see it again and demand more cuts. [37:04] AWS with consultation, drew up guidelines, documents and policy statements, and a code of practice. Then they went round the country holding public meetings which were very well attended. In Northern Ireland they wanted the BBFC to take a strong line, whereas London was very libertarian. Example on a question on pornography and tribunals. There were 20 examiners and films might go back 2 or 3 times for cuts. Film makers want an age15 designation which is for family viewing. AWS learnt how to handle Jack Straw with a rule of giving him no surprises so he could take difficult questions. Film makers used excellent barristers, David Pannick for example, in tribunals. AWS might take the decision to judicial review, then he knew he had done everything possible. The BBFC had money fromo the film licences. [45:57] AWS brought in a 12A designation, A for advisory by parents. This is mainly for violent films. The link between these and criminal behaviour is not proven. AWS had a survey done of child psychologists to try to find if there was a link between film and pornographic behaviour, and interestingly the answer was, hardly ever. Going round the regions, AWS learnt a lot. People generally now are less tolerant of violence, more relaxed about sex. These attitudes can't be altered by government. Violence can be distanced, and stylised, and must be judged on duration and noise as well. Also you can't cut what is not seen, even although the viewer might have thought they saw it. Example [55:21] Films must stick within the law and the Protection of Children Act is there. The censor's job is to be sure, in order to deal with waves of publicity. The church is less liberal and includes ethical arguments in its views. AWS had two vice presidents and James Firman too, and they all got on. He invented safeguards after debate and tried to make sure that he could not be made to look foolish. [1:04:36] AWS is now First Estates Church Commissioner and the church's estates are worth Đ5.3 billion. Other commissioners are Sir Stuart Bell MP who answers questions in parliament and Timothy Walker, previously of the Health and Safety executive is in charge of things like cathedral reorganisation. AWS is the chief financial adviser and sees a lot of the bishops and archbishops. There is an uneasy balance between the Catholic and Calvinistic wings of the Church of England. It is strange because no-one really runs the church. The parishes are run by the priest, and the dioceses are legally separate. Durham is a rich cathedral in a poor area and Winchester a rich area with poor cathedral endowment. [1:9:03] AWS enjoys the farm visits with the land agents. It is a formal occasion and they wear suits. It is a part of old England. The farmer might be advanced with machines assessing wheat production and soil chemistry. On two farms side by side in Devon, one fed their dairy herd bags of pellets so they knew what they were getting, the other believed in the organic goodness of the grass. [1:14:37] AWS holds regular finance meetings, explaining his technique and giving confidence. The church is always in crisis but not disaster. AWS can't handle Synod well. They had a debate on the media and two films were criticised both of which had been in AWS's time. Baise Moi and Intimacy. Both films have a serious point to make and are not sexually arousing. The BBFC must reflect public attitudes according to its guidelines. Churchmen bring their own local wisdom to Synod. AWS was criticised for the church selling its social housing. Giving from the pews is the main source of income and poor areas often give proportionately more. [1:24:57] The clergy live in the vicarage which belongs to the church, which ties up a lot of money. AWS wishes to reduce the proportion of property in the whole estate. Clergymen are conservative, not adventurous. AWS attended a communion service mainly for bishops, taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury. His homily was the best thing that AWS has ever heard, relevant, simple and profound. He is a polymath but does not know the simple tricks of handling a meeting. The Archbishop of York is charismatic and hardline, they are a good couple. AWS put forward proposals for targets of young people coming to church and becoming priests. Alien ideas, but they accepted the second. [34:37] The Bishop of London is a great man, good historian. Discussion of attitudes to women and homosexuals. [1:37.30] AWS is meant to work two days a week, it is often more. They have good investment managers. They run the property themselves. Examples of the Hyde Park Estate and a house recently bought in Long Acre. They have a gifted chief surveyor. There is quite a lot of distrust [1:42:18] AWS got the CBE in 2002, and felt it would be churlish to refuse. He is now on the committee allotting honours, the arts and media sector. He suggested one person with whom the others did not agree, but it is his custom not to let it go, and he introduced it a second time, when it went through. He is active on the Children's Mutual Society and the Prudential FSA with profits committee. This is technical. AWS got some terms changed. [1:47:50] There was a row concerning the Churchill Archive Trust Đ12 million price for family papers. AWS went to see a cousin living in modest circumstances, the typical "younger son" of the family. [1:51:21] From 1994-2000 AWS was on the Architecture Foundation making the case for modern architecture to important landowners. It was very active and we are lucky that now again high taste and popular taste are in agreement and architecture is flourishing. They held a public meeting which AWS chaired and at which Norman Foster spoke. The stewards pointed out the troublemakers, who can be quite difficult to handle. [1:57:13] AWS is also on the National Council for One Parent Families. He would go to see them. Examples. They are now merging with Gingerbread. His sons are now 39 and 41. The older one has a partner and lives in Bristol, the other one has married a Japanese lady who is lovely. They visit her parents and have a fellow feeling. [2:03:08] In conclusion AWS knew he wanted to go to Oxbridge, and did, and wanted to become an officer, and didn't. After that most of his career changes have been chance led. He has had much enjoyment from the challenges and creativity of his life and considers himself to be very fortunate.

  • Description

    Life story interview with journalist Andreas Whittam Smith

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