Squeeze could benefit MidEast coverage

Changes in newspaper ownership could lead to fairer reporting on Israel

By Alex Brummer, December 23, 2008

Many of the same forces which are reshaping America’s media industry are impacting on Britain’s national newspapers.

The UK has 10 titles battling it out on the news-stands each day, as well as free-sheets and London’s Evening Standard. But industry analysts question whether this can continue in 2009 at a time of falling advertising revenues, competition from the internet and rising newsprint costs.

Indeed, given the intense competition, it is surprising that the UK industry has remained so durable.

Partly, this is about ownership: newspaper proprietorship is as much about prestige and influence as about financial reward, allowing newspapers to defy the normal rules of economics. When a title runs into difficulty there is always a new owner ready to step into the breach. The Jewish owner of Northern and Shell, Richard Desmond stepped in to buy the Express titles (the Daily and Sunday Express and Star) when they came on the market in 2000. And the Barclay Brothers were quick to snap up the Telegraph titles in 2004 when Conrad Black ran into difficulty.

And ownership has an enormous influence on content. The change in control of the Telegraph titles meant that Black, one of Israel’s greatest friends in the British press, was lost. The new owners and editors display much less interest in the Middle East.

In contrast, the Murdoch titles, with the possible exception of the Sunday Times, remain firmly in the pro-Zionist camp reporting in detail on events across the Middle East. The Sun rarely pronounces on foreign affairs but when it does, there is no doubt where its sympathies lie.

Ownership will be particularly relevant in 2009. Deloitte predicts that the newspaper and magazine industry could be “decimated” with one out of every 10 print publications forced to reduce publication frequency. The report’s author, Howard Davies, talks of a “downward spiral” and says it is going to “get much worse as the advertising industry deteriorates”.

Circulation is under pressure and could suffer further as incomes are squeezed. In 2002, 12.8 million national newspapers were sold daily on average in the UK; by 2013 the figure is forecast to drop to 11 million.

The pressure has already produced some surprising bedfellows. In what is seen by some as a template for the future, The Independent (owned by Tony O’Reilly’s Independent Newspapers group) will leave Canary Wharf in January to share the Kensington premises of Associated Newspapers (owners of the Daily Mail) in a bid to save up to £5 million a year. As the home of Robert Fisk, The Indy has been regarded as a critic of Israel and the move west is unlikely to alter that.

Of more significance is the paper’s new-ish editor, Roger Alton who, as editor of Guardian Media Group’s

Observer, embraced the neo-con take on the Iraq war — a move which led to his departure from the stable.

The media expert and former editor Roy Greenslade said recently that in early 2009 “at least one” major UK newspaper group will “have to take the same drastic action as the Tribune Company” in the US, which is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

He doesn’t say which, but among the most vulnerable is Trinity Mirror, which has high debt levels and falling circulation in its main titles, the Mirror, Sunday Mirror and People. As titles of the “left” they have been unsympathetic to Israel and have embraced the Palestinian cause.

If there is a change of ownership in 2009 it could be beneficial as far as Middle East coverage is concerned.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 11:12am, December 23 2008