The paper-backed book festival and how rupert saved the news

The Hay Book Festival receives plenty of news coverage – but would it get still more if it were not sponsored by The Guardian? And have we really got Rupert Murdoch to thank for a vibrant press?

Columnists like feedback… of the right sort. This is a request for more of it. Two weeks ago on this page, I wrote about The Guardian’s sponsorship of the Hay Literary Festival, and suggested it might have discouraged other broadsheet papers from covering the event. After all, why would they want to plug something associated with a rival?

The Hay festival’s excellent PR representative, Sophie Rochester of Colman Getty, promptly e-mailed me to tell me I was wrong. Perhaps she detected an unintended slight on Colman Getty’s professionalism. My own unscientific scanning of the papers during the ten days of the festival had turned up few pieces: Sophie insisted there had been plenty. Some, such as an interview with Eoin Colfer in The Independent and a feature on Louis de Bernières in The Daily Telegraph, ran ahead of the festival.

But many features also ran during the ten days of the festival itself, in diary columns and news pages – and it wasn’t just coverage of the rather comical row over newsreaders’ pay, prompted by the BBC’s Andrew Marr and John Humphrys.

Rochester says that in 2004, the festival achieved print editorial coverage equivalent to £2.3m-worth of advertising – and that The Guardian’s own coverage accounted for just a quarter of that.

There is a wider issue here. Attracting sponsorship from a media organisation has obvious advantages for both sides. A clever sponsor benefits from an association with an event whose values, character and customers are a good fit with its own. The event itself gains cash and guaranteed editorial exposure. But would it receive more exposure if the sponsor were not a media owner? It would be interesting to hear views from media owners-cum-sponsors, from agencies, consultants and event organisers. Answers please to nick.higham@bbc.co.uk, and I promise to return to the subject over the summer.

That column on Hay also generated feedback from The Guardian itself. Media Guardian’s Media Monkey column picked up on my remark that book festivals are a good way of filling 24-hour news channels when there’s no news. There was, the Monkey chattered, quite a lot of news about: referendum fallout, Bob Geldof mouthing off, Tory leadership rumblings… Quite right – but none of it was happening the weekend of June 4 and 5, when News 24 was at Hay: the European crisis was on hold over the weekend, and the only story on the Sunday was the Government’s plans for charging road users. With so little news to report, we had to be creative.

They knew all about that in Fleet Street, where most of the manufacturing seemed to go on in the area’s legendary pubs. Now Fleet Street is no more: Reuters, the last major news organisation with its headquarters on the street, is moving out. The splendid facades of The Daily Telegraph and Daily Express buildings across the road from Reuters are just that – facades, their glass doors permanently locked, their grand entrance halls empty and unused. Behind them, where journalists scribbled and printers sweated, is a vast new office complex largely occupied by the investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Reuters celebrated – if that’s the right word – its move with a service at St Bride’s Church, next to the old offices, with Rupert Murdoch reading the lesson (“Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat them…”). The event prompted many reminiscences of the camaraderie of the old street and the presses roaring and rumbling through the night – all now lost in the newspaper diaspora, to Wapping and Canary Wharf and Kensington High Street.

But the old Fleet Street was also dirty and drunken, cramped and corrupt. Newspapers were produced using obsolete technology and employing hundreds of unnecessary staff, thanks to the power of the print unions. Few made any money. Most were horribly over-manned – all that drinking was possible because so many of the journalists didn’t have enough to do.

By the late 1980s a newspaper revolution, and a move out of Fleet Street, was long overdue. It was made possible by the flotation of Reuters – until then a trust owned by its customers – which netted £770m. Much of that money was ploughed into new printing plants in Docklands and paying off all those redundant printers, once Rupert Murdoch had led the way by moving his titles to Wapping.

National newspapers today are infinitely bigger, brighter and arguably better than they were in the 1980s, with many more sections and widespread use of colour. Most of them also make money – and if anyone deserves credit for this state of affairs it is Murdoch. He often gets a bad press, but in this respect he is one of the famous men we should be praising.v

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