The Telegraph beats them all

Balanced MidEast coverage is just one reason to give the paper a press award

By Alex Brummer, December 10, 2009

When the UK Press Awards come around next year, there can be only one serious candidate for Newspaper of the Year: the Daily Telegraph.

It may have paid for its scoop on MPs’ expenses, but the way it executed the story was much admired. Under the guidance of Tony Gallagher, the deputy editor just elevated to editor, it showed remarkable technical skills and proved that even in the digital age newspapers are still capable setting an agenda.

Gallagher is a Telegraph editor in a new mould. He is very much a product of the Daily Mail, from whence he came, and his interests are largely the same.

His paper offers a commanding hard news view of Britain with an injection of celebrity. It also has a taste for the curious, giving full coverage a couple of months ago to a story suggesting that the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a fierce enemy of Israel and a Holocaust-denier, might have Jewish roots.

There was a time, when Lord (Conrad) Black was the proprietor, when the Telegraph was the most reliable source on Middle East news. At times during the second intifada, when Israel was under attack elsewhere in the British press, the Telegraph was a beacon of light. The proprietor’s journalist spouse Barbara Amiel was offered the freedom of the opinion pages and more to defend Israel’s cause.

The paper has been edited by people with an international vision

Some media observers regarded the Black/Amiel defence of the Jewish state as obsessive. But it was comforting that a large circulation quality with Jewish antecedents (the founder-printer was Joseph Moses Levy) chose to give Israel a fair hearing.

Similarly, because of its large network of foreign correspondents, its international pages could always be expected to thoroughly cover big developments in the region.

After the takeover by Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay in June 2004 for £655m, the paper began to change direction. Foreign news became far less of a component as the Telegraph sought to end a long decline in circulation by seeking to attract an audience in middle Britain.

Over recent decades, no British broadsheet had suffered a more calamitous loss of readers than the Telegraph. Peter Preston has pointed out in the Observer that in 1969 — the year Telegraph editor-in-chief Will Lewis was born — it sold 1,390,401 copies. Now the number of full-price copies distributed is 371,535, if you strip out subscriptions, bulk giveaways and the like.

Gallagher then has a mountain to climb if he is to restore the Telegraph to its former glory. It looks unlikely that the Middle East will be part of his battle plan. The Telegraph is still interested in the region and there are pages of Middle East news on its website covering all manner of topics from the conditions of Palestinians in Lebanese refugee camps to Iranian police shootings of protesters. But the foreign pages look to be more interested now in populist tales such as the auction of France’s most celebrated wine cellar. Op-ed pages also tend to be dominated by domestic comment.

This is not untypical of the way in which the British media — with notable exceptions, like the Guardian and the FT — are going. Funding overseas bureaus is expensive and competing with the BBC is difficult.

The real point is that the Telegraph has, over the decades, been edited by people with an international vision including Sir Max Hastings, now a noted military historian, and the cerebral Charles Moore.

Now the paper now has a traditional UK news man in charge. Those of us who have worked with Gallagher have no doubt about his considerable abilities. He has a photographic memory for detail and the ability to spot the important news angle.

There can be no doubt that were fresh conflict to break out in the Middle East, the Telegraph would cover it with aplomb.

What is missing at present is consistent, careful coverage of the region providing a useful counterpoint to some of the less favourable coverage of Israel found elsewhere.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 4:10pm, December 10 2009


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