Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How one of Britains's most noble redtops/prominent gutter newspapers (delete as appropriate) is slowly going to the dogs at the hands of one Sly Bailey

In the whacky world of newspapers which I inhabit and which I trust I shall be able to inhabit for the next two years and eight months (of which, as the Mail like to put it, more later), the career of one Sly Bailey must be one of the whackiest. If her abilities are to be judged by her performance as chief executive of Trinity Mirror, she has less talent than a one-legged tap dancer. But surely, you might be asking, she could not have risen to the dizzy heights in which she now exists unless she had some kind of ability? That’s the £64,000 question. In the past few weeks I have come across three facts about La Bailey which, put together, do make curious reading:

Last Sunday, Peter Preston, an ex-Guardian editor and – except for one unfortunate incident when he shopped a source, the great no-no for hacks – one of the great and good of the London liberal left, wrote a piece in The Observer defending our Sly. The lady had not only been awarding herself – or allowing herself to be awarded ‘renumeration packages’ exceeding £1.5 million, she did so while profits in the group she leads fell by 40pc to just £74 million. For a media organisation that is a truly appalling figure. She blames all sorts for the fall, but the question has to be asked why Trinity Mirror is doing so badly when other print media groups are not doing so badly? They are all, after all, facing the same ‘adverse conditions’ or whatever euphemism is the currently trendy one to use. Certainly there will be variations in how they go about doing business which ensure that one group is doing better than another, but it is those very ‘various ways of doing business’ which are the point: if Sly Bailey isn’t coming up with any which are as effective as those the opposition is pursuing, I think it is reasonably to wonder whether she is any good at her job and whether she deserves and ever-increasing ‘remuneration package’.

Preston’s piece would seem to be a response from a chap called Roy Greenslade, a former red-top deputy editor but now a professor of applied cliché or something in some university media department or other (University of Southwark?) who reports the City equivalent of ‘the natives are getting restless’ – shareholder unease. Well, I’d be uneasy, too, if the business I part-owned was reporting repeated falls in profits while the man, in this case, woman put in place to ensure the profits rise rather than fall was not only apparently useless at her job but was paying herself ever-greater wads of dosh.

Most people in the business will have heard the name Sly Bailey (her given name is Sylvia and Sly is just a pet name, though an extremely unfortunate one, it has to be said) and most people in the business will be familiar with her tactic to try to re-float a sinking ship: sack staff to cut the wage bill. Why this ploy is attempted again and again is beyond me because it never, but never, ever, works. Staff are sacked, the ‘product’ gets shoddy, sales go down, more action is needed so more staff are sacked, the products gets shoddier, sales go down even more, more action is needed, and the whole sorry routine is repeated until there is no more ‘product’ to sell, the poor bloody infantry are cast off as just so much baggage while the senior officer class move elsewhere, probably to fuck up some other entrerprise.

One ruse Ms Bailey is attempting to bring down the bills and stave of the evil day when the Mirror goes down the tubes is by raiding the Trinity Mirror pension fund to pay off debts in the U.S. Quite apart from the dubious ethics of the move – newspapers and ethics, now there’s a comic partnership – Mirror proprietors – or rather one of them – have form on matters pension fund. Good ole’s Captain Bob aka Robert Maxwell, about the crookedest nine bob note to haunt Fleet Street for many a year – and there is a long list of characters to choose from – also raided the Mirror pension fund when his web of grandiose and bent deals finally began to unravel. So naturally when the words ‘Mirror’, ‘pensions’ and ‘fund’ are used in the same sentence alarm bells ring loudly from Kensington to Cheapside. Well, Sly is doing it again, which is why just under half of the big investors in Trinity Mirror are wondering just how healthy the company is.

. . .

At the top right of The Guardian’s comment website page is a piccy of some Victorian-looking gent whose name is given as C.P. Scott. Left-liberals revere the man, a former Guardian editor, and often quote, as the website does, his noble pronouncement that  ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Sounds grand, of course, and what right does a cynical bullshitter like me have to query such a noble sentiment? Well, let me give an example by way of trying to explain that when all is said and done, Scott’s thesis is just more vacuous nonsense which, rather like candyfloss, melts in the mouth in a moment with no discernible aftertaste except a sickly sweetness. Take for example ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘terrorist’, or, if you like and are feeling in a particularly pernickety mood ‘terrorist’ and freedom fighter’. Who would be foolish enough to claim as a fact that any individual is the one but not the other? For whatever you choose to insist upon, as sure as eggs is eggs someone will pop up and insist that the opposite is.

I would give another example if I could think of one, but I can’t, so that one will have to do, but you will already have taken my point: facts simply aren’t the copper-bottomed certainties we pretend they are. Is the Pope a bastard (whoever he is)? Well, yes, and that’s a fact if you are an enthusiastic Orangeman. Is Israel more or less a fascist state behaving intolerably towards and oppressed minority? Most certainly, and that’s a fact if you are your average Guardian reader. No, she’s not if — as far as I am concerned — you try a little harder to understand the ineffably complex history of the Middle East and the genesis of the state of Israel. So, here’s a plea: let’s have a little less of the ‘facts are sacred’ bull. They should be, of course, but they rarely, if ever, are.

. . .

If you are a sentimental old hack (which I hope to goodness I am not) the ongoing decline of The Mirror, once known as the Daily Mirror, is sad, sad, sad. In it’s heyday, the late Thirties, the war years and the Fifties, it was a force to be reckoned with. But by the Sixties it and its staff had been corrupted by very generous expense accounts and the paper had become a flabby version of its former self. Furthermore, the world of which it was once the mouthpiece had changed. Between the world wars it still made sense to talk of a ‘working class’ and ‘working class values’ and ‘working class culture’, the Andy Capp world view. It was the world of ‘factory fortnights’ and workingmen’s clubs, when the Labour Party consisted of real socialist rather, as it does today, with vaguely left-of-centre politocrats who regard politics as just another career.

By the Sixties the Mirror, or the Daily Mirror as it still was, was loathed by men such as my father (he told me in all seriousness after Harold Wilson was first elected in 1964 that Britain ‘would be communist within six months’) but its days were numbered. Yes, it was still a successful paper which sold well and made oodles of dosh, but it was by then going through the motions. It was no longer the Daily Mirror, it was playing at being the Daily Mirror. Then, but the early Seventies when The Sun was launched by Rupert Murdoch the decline started. It’s always a bad sign when a newspaper has several proprietors within just a few years but the Mirror did. At one point it was being run by some guy who had cut his business teeth running a building society and knew as much about newspapers as I do about nuclear physics.

A real irony is that the Mirror was first established by Alfred Harmsworth, later known as Lord Northcliffe, in 1903 as a paper for ‘gentlewomen’ and was a nice genteel middle-class paper owned and run by Harmsworth’s brother Lord Rothermere until he sold his controlling interest in 1931 and the new editor took it in a left-wing direction. (The word tabloid gained its modern meaning after Northcliffe told someone that he wanted his new paper, the Daily Mirror, to go down as easily ‘as a tabloid’. This was a reference to a particular kind of headache tablet called a ‘tabloid’ by the guy selling it which he insisted was easier to swallow than conventional tablets. Bet you never knew that, although thinking about it, I might well have written that before in some earlier entry.)

After the chappie who was quite possibly a whizz at running building societies but hopeless at publishing newspapers, the Mirror fell into the hands of the infamous Robert Maxwell (who was, in fact, really called Jan Hoch and originally from Czechoslovakia). And once he had nearly wrecked it it passed into the hands of the Trinity group (I think) and the decline is almost complete. Something similar— a once great newspaper collapsing in on itself on itself and becoming an embarrassing verision of it former proud self — is also happening to the Daily Express which is now owned and run on a shoestring by a pornographer. But that’s another story, it is now way after midnight, I am tired, so if you want to know more along those lines, count me out.

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