Late St Patrick’s day takeover of the Belfast Telegraph?

Speculation is rife about exactly if/when ownership of Independent News and Media UK finally passes to Russian oligarch Alexander Lebedev. Robert Peston believes the deal is imminent later today or tomorrow. But not a word about the implications for stablemate the Belfast Telegraph, which has been the nearest thing the Indy had to a cash cow for years. Media guru Roy Greenslade covers the history of the tortuous negotiations but has no fresh information to add. The whole business is about as transparent as Belfast sleech and a far cry from the cross border, cross channel idealism of the old tycoon Tony O’Reilly. Meanwhile the rest of the Belfast media stays silent. Cowed perhaps by the freemasonry of their own nervous owners?

Lebedev picked up the ailing London Evening Standard for £2 and adopted the bold strategy of turning it into a single edition, late evening freesheet. That may work for the captive Tube readership and may even be on the cards for the Indy at least in London and other big metro centres. The name of the game seems to be to abandon nationwide circulation, in favour restricting it to big city concentration with lower costs. As for the Bel Tel, it seems to be part of the goody bag for Lebedev’s son Evgeny. I’m sure they’ll appreciate that in Larne. For the Lebedevs you can see the fun in the Standard gamble but the appeal of the Bel Tel may elude them. In the medium term it all seems terribly precarious, even though when I last heard, the paper was still making money despite its gently falling circulation. I wouldn’t be surprised of Lebedev’s ownership of the Belfast Telegraph was a short term fix with an sale-on to another buyer. But to whom?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • joeCanuck

    Excuse my ignorance, Brian, but what does the freemasonry of the nervous owners have to do with it? Or was that a metaphor?

  • Brian’s reference to the `freemasonry’ of the owners of the other Belfast papers was certainly unusual. The News Letter, owned by the Edinburgh-based Johnston Press, would never be inclined to give much coverage to developments at the Belfast Telegraph anyway, while the influence of the chaps with the funny handshakes on the Irish News has been less than obvious.

    Brian presumably also meant to talk about the Evening Standard as a late morning rather than a late evening freesheet, as its deadline is before noon.

    It is correct to say that the Belfast Telegraph’s circulation has been dropping significantly, but the paper always made its money from advertising and commercial printing.

  • Justin Case…

    but the paper always made its money from advertising and commercial printing

    I’ve heard a very reliable rumour that the Bel Tel may have been ‘leant on’ by Downing Street around the time of the Hillsborough discussions. Would Government advertising have been used as leverage?

    Now can anyone think of a story that everyone has been expecting to hit the headlines but has sursprisingly remained off the shelves? Think a local MP’s expenses.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Oh I think that the freemasonry reference can cover a range of things.
    First mentioned in a reference to Trevor Hanna (RIP)a real freemason, Mr Walker later referred to the wider “freemasonry of journalism” about which I poked a little harmless fun. A recent Top Grand Pooh Bear in the Freemasons in Ireland has the same unusual surname as one of Belfast leading journos.
    There is a “wider freemasonry” in Belfast journalism at the NewsLetter and Irish News. Essentially they are not rivals, competing for the same market share. They have in the past shared printing presses. The Belfast Telegraph is their mutual enemy.
    The Belfast Telegraph confuses me. Unionist-lite (pro O’Neill coupons and their useless polls), it seems to have drifted. It cant quite adopt the new realities.
    Frankly its years since I read it. Buy and Sell type weekly papers (a la “Loot” in London) and the Internet must have affected it.

    And I am as likely to see it and ignore it in our village shop at lunch time than I am to see a different version after 6pm.
    And its relationship with the BOSSES of the migrant workers (who sell the paper, not only at our busy intersections but increasingly on the pitches once occupied by newsboys) is probably profitable but……ethical?

    What exactly is the Belfast Telegraph for?
    A city wide institution no doubt..but not one to which I have ever warmed.
    Not wishing to see people lose their jobs of course…..but would it make any real difference if it “went under”.
    Not even sure I would read it as a freesheet.
    By the way……surely a freesheet “Independent” could only work in London and even if it did cover the “metro” areas, it would lose all status as a national newspaper if it could not be seen in Cornwall or Shropshire.

    Incidently I was in Belfast on Saturday with my son and grandson and passed the old Northern Whig (now of course an upmarket bar). Of course my son had only vaguely heard of the Whig thru History. To me, I recall an actual newspaper and (later) a commercial printing works.
    Makes you wonder how the next generation will be looking at that landmark Belfast Telegraph building.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Justin Case,
    The feverish climate of about six weeks ago when the only people unaware of a very strong rumour is indeed remarkable. The “public” were actually more “in the know” than journalists…or so it seemed.
    While I can understand that no journalist wants to be sued for libel……I also understand that the best defence to libel is the TRUTH.
    While now there are three rumours “on the go” instead of one.
    Those who boast of their “sources” are silent.
    Where are the journalists?
    Are they sitting on stories for “political” or “business” or “personal finacial” considerations?
    I think we should be told.
    Unfortunately the only people who can tell us are…..journalists.

  • “Cowed perhaps by the freemasonry of their own nervous owners? ”

    Walker, provide some evidence supporting your, frankly, bullshit remarks. We all know you hate protestants, hate unionists, promote your republican cause, etc, but now you want to blame Freemasonry as well! Come up with the proof please or rescind your comments.

  • granni trixie

    Despite the advice,”you’ll never get a job in Baird’s Tele” a la the late 60s, I did – as a “telead girl” and had some of the most exciting times of my life (sad, isn’t it).

    Infact despite its Protestant identity the paper had been taken over since about 10 years previously by the Canadian Thompson Group (Yellow pages fame). The advertising dept was dominated by commercial values – meeting targets and one was not aware of sectarianism.

    From my vantage point at the front counter I was impressed when the editor kept a certain “extreme” clergyman waiting an hour and a half. Paisley was complaining because the advertising manager would not place an ad in the paper for one of his rallys.

    It was a while before I became aware that all the compositors in the BT were Protestant, from jobs handed on from father to son and I believe that this dept was the most resistant to change in keeping with fair employment laws.

    But I love the Tele! And turn to the classifieds first thing.

  • Rory Carr

    I should be careful if I were you, FJH, the truth of any assertion is not in itself a totally, or indeed, particularly, reliable defence against libel in the English courts. Being found to have damaged someone’s reputation by revealing a harmful truth about them that was not hitherto in the public domain may yet be construed as libellous (and indeed, has been).

    The other problem with the English libel laws is that even if something has only ever appeared in an obscure foreign journal (or obscure internet site), if it has been read by anyone in England, a case for libel can be brought, and increasingly to much concern, more and more cases presently are being brought with a justified reaction from US courts which have now determined that libel awards granted in English courts against US citizens penalising their free speech will not be enforceable in the US.

    If the BelTel is included in the muted £1 deal for the Independent group then Lebdev will have picked himself a nice little earner but one which he may more likely view as a disposable asset capable of producing on sale an immediate fat cash injection into his new enterprise which may well prove to be more attractive than any status value that Lebedev himself is able to fully appreciate in the ownership of such an established title.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Oh RoryCarr..absolutely right on the Law.
    But our fearless intrepid reporters are seemingly not as fearless and intrepid as they think they are.
    Maybe four of them are waiting to be called to a Press Conference called by a “broken” politician.

    Maybe in a few months they will be feverishly telling us “we knew this all along”

  • Rory Carr

    What’s this FJH? Is Wee (but perfectly formed) Jeffrey about to tell us that he intends to leave politics so that he can spend more time with his DVD player?

  • alan56

    If all the rumours and other gossip that have been creating such a ‘blog frensy’ do not appear soon then I think journalism will be the big loser. Credibility, honesty and independence will be seriously questioned in future.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Jeffrey? No I was thinking about…….oops Ive said too much.
    alan56 is right here.
    Whenever journos do finally break the stories, it will be when we know it already.
    The Fourth Estate is (it claims) one of the great truth-seekers.
    Yet they seem to be letting us down.
    Do they really believe that scandal must be suppressed to facilitate the “Peace Process”?

    What is going on? While we all make jokes about it…it is actually beyond a joke.

  • Let me see if I have got this right, FJH. You want the papers to run a story about `a very strong rumour’ which is doing the rounds, even though you have no idea whether or not it is true. If the story does not appear, you believe it means that a scandal is being surpressed for political or financial reasons. If it does appear, then you say that the public would already be well aware of it anyway.

    The two main unpublished rumours at the moment concern an invoice and a photograph which both allegedly originate in London. It is possible that they simply do not exist. If they are genuine, it is also possible that they are not in the possession of Belfast-based journalists.
    If you are sure that they are real, and sitting in the drawer of a Belfast newsdesk, then you should really offer some general form of supporting evidence.

  • Alias

    Independent News & Media expanded its titles within the British Empire (New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa) where the British government could use its influence to sponsor Sir Tony’s business interests as his reward for allowing his titles in Ireland to be used to disseminate pro-British propaganda in regard to Northern Ireland and to promote a rabidly anti-nationalist agenda within Ireland (and with his NI title being used to promote helpful polls in the Bel Tel).

    Alexander Lebedev isn’t buying a paper: he is buying influence. In the old days, when the British government still had sovereignty in this area, it could use it to ensure that the Fourth Estate was owned by those who promoted British national interests. Now it can’t even prevent a former KGB agent from having influence over public opinion so it will just have to appease him and hope that he uses it to promote British national interests (like its former owner) and not the national interests of another state…

  • Driftwood

    The Independent looks a goner..
    Which is a pity given its early days, and I loved the ‘Sunday Correspondent’. I think ‘The Observer’ may go the same way.
    The Belfast Telegraph relies on an aging demographic who read the death columns to see whose funeral to attend this week. Not a good future business model.
    Flogging it at major intersections looks desperate.
    cookie crumbles etc

  • FitzjamesHorse

    old hack,
    nope that is not my position.
    I cant ever recall a time when there was so much rumour in the public domain.
    I just find it odd that your acknowledgement of some of them is the first time I have seen anything on Slugger which has come from a source that I might describe as journalistic.
    Obviously in your profession you have come accross a few stories that are unpublishable for legal reasons.
    But Im wondering aloud if the reasons why these fairly outrageous rumours are not being pursued is down to legal reasons or “political reasons”.

    In order for the Peace Process to survive we have had to make many compromises (Creative ambiguity etc) …is there a reason other than legality why we have not seen more of this in mainstream news? I really do think thats a fair point.
    We rely on the Press to give us the news. It seems unreal that so many seem to think they know more news than the journos.

  • joeCanuck

    Flogging it at major intersections looks desperate.

    You must be much younger than I am, Driftwood. They have been doing that at least since I was a lad, 45 years ago. And not just at intersections; the young lads and oul guys did it all along the main streets.

  • Thanks,FJH, for confirming that you are `wondering aloud’ rather than offering any evidence that stories are being deliberately surpressed for non-legal reasons. Rumours are always in circulation in this part of the world. If they can be substantiated, my limited knowledge indicates that a story will usually be published somewhere.

  • Justin Case…

    I can gauruntee that all the speculation around the posession of an invoice is 100% true. The journalist involved is none too pleased however theres been an order from above to let it lie.

    During some of the side discussions at Hillsborough with a very, very select few it was decided that if such a story were to break, and it was on the verge of doing just that, then it would potentially be a scandal too much for a certain political party and therefore lead to a possible collapse of the institutions.

    Downing Street subsequently got involved and surprisingly enough there has been no story.

    But this is nothing new to Northern Irelands newspapers; the same thing happened around the time of the Belfast Agreement negotiations, that time with a very ‘respectable’ senior player. Again London thought it would destablise the situation so the media were brow beaten into keeping shut.

    Really if people knew half of what the media were keeping quiet about that in itself would be a scandal. That is why any paper you see which includes govenment advertising (civil services etc) then you must also accept that Stormont Castle & Downing Street may have a direct line to the editors office.

  • Justin Case…

    However I must add, the fact that this document has been proven to exist it would give me a hunch that sooner or later this story is going to be published. If one journalist has it then you can be damned sure the rest of the hacks know about it.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    old hack….
    its the nature of things that a wide variety of rumours/gossip whatever will be known to journalists.

    I must ask (NOT on the rumours themselves)if you have know many situations where a series of rumours have been so persistent in water cooler conversation or internet nod and wink without the rumours surfacing in the public prints.
    I find that strange.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    Thats exactly my point.
    You make the case (and of course I cant verify it) that the decision not to publish and be damned is “political”….a journo and by extension the journalistic profession is being leaned on.
    As Journalists are zealous defenders of their freedoms.witness the backslapping and mutual congratulation when Suzanne Breen won her case a few months back.

    Where are the zealous defenders of Journalism now?
    …if what you say is true (and it sounds true).
    The fact that any one of the many journalists on Slugger could actually put all this to bed by simply saying “Justin…..FJH……you are both talking nonsense” is a story in itself.

  • granni trixie

    Funnyenough, for several months now a rumour has been doing the rounds. It concerns a certain LADY – but so far no sign of it in the newspapers etc and I do wonder why.

    It looks like it is different to the invoice story. Although, come to think of it, the invoice could be part of my LADY story (or not – but that’s the nature of chinese rumours).

    STOP THE PRESSES:no priest or bishop appears to be involved.

  • Drumlins Rock

    come on guys publish and be damed! lol

    Its much harder to get the gossip out in the sticks, Newts wee bit in the Irish Times website is the closet we got to a solid story.

    Was talking to a mate works for the Tele, on the floor that is, they arent much the wiser there it seems but they are starting to worry about their jobs again as they print alot of the other papers and dont want things up-set.

  • FJH, there have been plenty of previous occasions when rumours spread like wildfire. Sometimes they were true and sometimes they were not. The tiresome business of producing the evidence does not seem high on the list of priorities of some contributors here.

    There clearly was substance to the 1998 case to which JC refers, but the context is wrong. While a `very respected senior player’ was indeed in big trouble, allegedly over a compromising voice mail, it is nonsense to claim that the media generally were `brow beaten into keeping shut’. One outlet,a London-based Sunday tabloid, reportedly had the tape, and is believed to have cut a deal where it was facilitated for dropping the story at a very late stage.

    This was dubious practice, although whether the story could have been regarded as in the public interest is quite another matter. The individual concerned may have been involved in a personal indescretion, but did not hold public office and was hardly a moral crusader.

    However, the bottom line is only one paper, a long way from Belfast, had the details. It chose not to publish, rightly or wrongly, but the idea that some Big Brother operation silenced a range of titles is untrue.

    For those who enjoy a media conspiracy theory, I recommend the 1985 film Defence of the Realm. It was fictional, but good fun all the same.

  • FitzjamesHorse

    old hack, thanks for that. I appreciate it and recognise the essential honesty in it.
    The 1998 case was not “known” to me for a couple of years and I felt mighty peeved when I discovered I was the only person in the world who didnt know.
    granni trixie…heard that one too…but say it aint so.

    On the generality, the problem with the media is that it “mediates”. It forms the story. And I think theres a certain faux distance between journalists and tabloid journalists.
    Public Interest and Interesting the Public and other quasi moral stances.
    The bottom line…and we have seen it here on Slugger is that journalists can be savage at the indiscretion of an enemy and rather “soft” on the indiscretion of a friend.

    Am I so different? Sadly the probability is that I am not. Id take more delight in publishing a scandal involving contributors to Fox News than I would take in a scandal involving someone I liked.
    But I do find the Medias silence on recent events or non-events baffling.

  • granni trixie

    FJH: Forgive me, I have not credited you with such insights previoulsy (re savage and soft) and I agree with you we all tend to be guilty of this.

    re ‘my’ story-rumour – do you mean you know that it is groundless or that you cannot bear to think it is correct?

  • FitzjamesHorse

    granni trixie,
    Your story is too awful to contemplate.
    Oh I think theres a “list” of politicians who can be abused with impunity on Slugger and others that it is impossible to abuse (although I have done my best to widen the possibilities)