Editors play musical chairs as papers change political tunes

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Old editors never die. Nor, it seems, do they all fade away. Some, like William Rees-Mogg, Simon Jenkins and Andrew Neil, write trenchant newspaper columns. Others get elevated to positions where they can make policy and deals and mischief.

Take Sir David English, the editor largely responsible for the phenomenal success of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, now chairman of Associated Newspapers. He has just pulled off two coups that seem calculated to unsettle not only his rivals but his own organisation and the Government.

The first was his poaching of Max Hastings, editor in chief of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, to be editor of a regional evening paper, the Evening Standard of London. The title in question is not any old regional but nevertheless the appointment came as a surprise to many.

In fact, no selection could better have demonstrated the influence held by the Standard. Its daytime monopoly of the newspaper market in London ensures it is read avidly in Westminster, the City and media offices.

Like the daytime radio and television news programmes, the Standard influences the following day’s national newspapers and has developed an enviable reputation for setting the news agenda – both with its front page news stories and its editorial-page signed articles.

Hastings’ appointment makes sense for both sides. He made his name at the Standard as a fearless reporter in the Falklands and a fearsome polemicist on the feature pages (causing, among other things, problems for the BBC by contrasting its purchase of the distressingly popular The Thorn Birds with ITV’s home-grown production of The Jewel in the Crown). And after ten years at the Telegraph, where it had long been reported that Hastings did not see eye to eye with his proprietor Conrad Black, it was time for a change.

The move has spread confusion both at the Telegraph and the Mail group. At the Daily Telegraph, a clutch of more right-wing candidates has emerged, jostling for the editorship. They include Charles Moore, editor of the Sunday Telegraph; Dominic Lawson, editor of the the Telegraph-owned Spectator; deputy editor Simon Heffer; and, according to one report, former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil.

At the Mail group, Hastings’ signing blocks promotion for the next generation of editors, several of whom might have hoped for elevation. And those wondering what impact his arrival might have on the notorious internal rivalry between the group’s newspapers – and the political persuasion of his new paper – now have to weigh up the meaning of Sir David’s second coup: the disclosure in the Spectator that Lord Rothermere believes it is “not impossible” for the Mail to support Labour at the next election.

Some see this as mere mischief-making, designed as another shot across the bows of the Tories and a way of furthering discord between “New” and “Old” Labour. Yet the fact it can be discussed at all shows how far the politico-media landscape has changed in the past year. First Rupert Murdoch let it be known his papers might support Tony Blair – later inviting him to Australia to address his world editors’ congress. Now even the Mail’s allegiance is up for grabs.

Yet at the other end of the spectrum, there is also confusion. Relations are strained between the Labour Party and one of its few faithful press supporters, The Guardian. We know this because the issue dominated the paper’s pre-conference interview with Blair. Like the Mail, this is another group chaired by a past editor, Peter Preston – who, unlike English, has also joined the brigade of trenchant columnists.

There were calls at the Labour conference to force another of the party’s traditional supporters, the Mirror group, to give its trade unions greater recognition. We can only await with anticipation the arrival of the Daily Mirror’s new editor, Piers Morgan, from Murdoch’s News of the World. Although he will not change the paper’s political allegiance – it would be daft to do so at any time, let alone when Labour looks like winning – he will have a crucial influence on the way it handles its political coverage in the run-up to the election.

Behind him he will find another clutch of ex-editors disinclined to fade away. The Mirror group is chock full of them, from chief executive David Montgomery (like Morgan, ex-News of the World, and also ex-Today), through Charles Wilson (ex-Times) to the former Sun supremo, Kelvin MacKenzie. Not forgetting two recent past-editors of the Mirror, editorial director David Banks and Colin Myler, who has becoming the paper’s managing director.

Not all of these appear to have line-management responsibility for the Mirror’s editorial policy, but the temptation for meddling – if not mischief – will be strong. MacKenzie – currently redefining Live TV after the departure of Janet Street-Porter – has lost none of his critical faculties, nor his gift for a pithy phrase. His verdict on one current editor (not in the Mirror group) was scathing: “He couldn’t edit a lottery ticket.”

With editors such as MacKenzie, English and Preston behind them – in addition to proprietors such as Murdoch, Rothermere and Black – today’s national newspaper editors cannot feel they are masters of their own pages. In the run-up to the General Election, editorial conferences are likely to be even more disputatious than usual.

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