Press: Victim of the Telegraph cull

16 April 2008

by Andrew Brown

JONATHAN PETRE, the Daily Telegraph religious-affairs correspondent, was sacked last week while I was writing my column.

On the way out of his unpleasant interview, he met his partner, Sarah Womack, who had been summoned to the same fate. She was the social-affairs correspondent, and both their jobs have now been rolled into one.

It is safe to bet that religion will be a very minor part of the new post’s workload, and the Church of England a minor part of that. So there are now two full-time religious-affairs correspondents on British dailies: Riazat Butt at The Guardian doesn’t yet know very much about the Church of England, and the other is Ruth Gledhill.

It is tactless to say so, but Jonathan was, I thought, a better-informed specialist than either of them, and with better judgement. He was certainly better informed than I am, and more balanced. He could, and did, ring Dr Williams privately to find out what was really going on, and sometimes he would be told the answer.

People trusted him, and they were right to do so. He was authoritative without being pompous: if one of his stories said something was true, you could trust it. He was respected as an honest broker by all sorts of people whose ideas he thought wicked and silly. He was charitable without being dishonest. What he did was difficult, and he made it look easy.

These aren’t tremendous, overblown claims. I don’t think he is one of the greatest journalists of my generation, but he is one of the good ones, the unsung professionals, like ship’s engineers, who make all the pomp and ceremony possible in the first-class lounge. The Telegraph used to be full of of journalists like that. (It also had its share of drunks, idlers, time-wasters, and show-offs; but Jonathan is none of those things.)

The decision to sack him and Sarah was simply part of the deliberate turn to make the Telegraph more like the Mail. This isn’t just a matter of dumbing down, or vulgarising, or losing skilled specialists. It is also the paper’s whole approach to news and how it is collected.

One great division between the “broadsheets” and the “tabloids” was only indirectly visible to the readers, but was also of extreme importance. This was the fact that on broadsheets, the reporters found the stories: on tabloids, the newsdesk decides what a story is, and then sends out a reporter (these days, a largely metaphorical activity) to collect the facts that will make it plausible.

To some extent, both these tendencies are present in all newspapers, and both are necessary. I worked on The Independent in the first year, when the paper really did try to do without sub-editors, and it wasn’t entirely a success: there is a job of managing and marshalling the day’s news agenda which has to be done by someone who is not also collecting it.

But on the Mail and papers like it, the reporter is simply supplying stuffing for the sausage machine. It is the difference between setting off for a press conference, and explaining beforehand what you hope will come out of it, and setting off after a phone call from the newsdesk has told you what the story will be — and if something happens to prove that the newsdesk was wrong, then you are expected to ignore the inconvenient facts rather than upset the news desk’s expectations. (The same process long ago overtook The Independent.)

It is the difference between writing the lead paragraph first and fitting a headline to the story and the space, and writing the headline and then producing the story to fit it. The important point is that the reporter writes the lead paragraph (or he or she should) and the newsdesk writes the headline.

However you want to look at this change, it results in worse journalism, and readers less well informed about the world. This doesn’t worry the owners of most newspapers.

But the change ought to worry the people who are being written about — not just because their vanity is going to be stung. When Jonathan Petre joined the paper, it had two religious-affairs correspondents, one of whom was Richard Chartres, and both, I believe, were known as “churches correspondent”. Now it has only half a one, or less.

The same decline has taken place across all the papers. Christianity in general, and Anglicanism in particular, has stopped being important without becoming interesting. Some of this is the fault of larger changes in society, and larger changes in newspapers. But some of it is also the fault of the Church of England, which may soon discover the truth of Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.

If this sounds bitter, well, I am bitter and upset. A good and decent friend, without even the poor comfort of my extensive experience of being sacked, has been shafted by “a stinking mob”, as Bill Deedes called them, once he was safely dead.

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