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April 6, 2009

Robin Morgan: ‘Inept management has led to less reporting’

By Julie Tomlin

Ask Robin Morgan, outgoing editor of the Sunday Times magazine, what he thinks are the biggest changes in newspapers since he began his career at The Sunday Times in 1979 and it’s clear that there are some considerable shifts to consider.

When he joined as a young reporter, the daily paper had 24 pages, the Sunday 54, plus the magazine, compared to the 100-plus for the Sunday today. It was also an era when the power of the print unions meant journalists’never knew from one week to the next if the paper would get out”.

But the most significant change, he says, is the move towards opinion rather than on-the-ground reporting. ‘There is a lot less reporting and a lot more opinionating,’he says. ‘It’s down to budgets, but I think inept management of budgets.

‘Sending people to cover a story isn’t expensive, it’s said as an excuse by inept managers who don’t know where to focus their resources financial or otherwise.”

Newspapers have also sold out to the entertainment industry to an extent that would have been unthinkable 14 years ago when he was made editor of the magazine, he says.

‘Newspapers have largely become the marketing arm of celebrity brands instead of doing journalism. We know that PRs are sending them photos they want used, that they are getting copy approval. It’s disgusting,’says Morgan, sitting in the chair that will be taken by Washington correspondent, Sarah Baxter in July.

The Sunday Times magazine stubbornly remains above the fray, insists Morgan, who adds that faced with such demands he ‘laughs at people and tells them to fuck off”.

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Such an approach has earned the magazine a reputation that has helped it secure interviews with ‘serious people’such as Martin Scorcese and Bill Nighy who ‘still understand that journalism is journalism and marketing is marketing,’he says.

The ‘staggering’success of last November’s relaunch of the magazine prompted his decision to step down: ‘I would rather leave now feeling that I have created a magazine that really is core rather than a supplement,’he says. ‘I finally produced a magazine which was the first major rebooting.

‘It’s organically grown and changed over 47 years, but no editor has been given the opportunity to pull it apart and reconfigure it and rebuild it in the way that [Sunday Times editor] John Witherow allowed me to.’

Arguing that the British press ‘has forgotten the power of general interest journalism”

Morgan says the decision to move away from specialist niches leaves the magazine less vulnerable in an advertising downturn.

Along with its emphasis on ‘ordinary people with an extraordinary story to tell’the magazine has strengthened its reportage and added Spectrum, a new section devoted to photojournalism, another area neglected by the British press, says Morgan.

Claiming ‘an approval rating in market research that is off the Richter scale of anything we have ever done”, Morgan admits that 12 to 24 ad-free pages don’t come cheap. For this he pays tribute to NewsCorp’s Europe and Asia boss James Murdoch, who, like his father, ‘believes in investing in editorial”.

Morgan joined The Sunday Times as a young reporter, moving from the Evening Echo, Hemel Hempstead, a paper that was a stepping stone to Fleet Street for a number of successful journalists including David Blundy, Anthony Holden, Melanie Phillips and Joan Smith.

He was championed by the editor at the time Harry Evans, who hired him against the warnings of senior executives who were appalled at the idea of hiring someone from the provinces who had left school at 16 and not been to university. ‘One of them was quoted as saying ‘For God’s sake Harry he doesn’t even speak French’. But Harry was a great one for giving people chances.”

Apart from a move to the editor’s chair at the Sunday Express between 1989 and 1991 and Reader’s Digest between 1993 and 1994, Morgan has remained at The Sunday Times: ‘It’s the love of my life,’he says. Working under four editors, including Evans, he has been deputy news editor, editor of the investigative Insight section, and features editor, and was named campaigning journalist of the year in 1983.

As well as Evans, Morgan has huge respect for another ‘great meritocrat”, former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil – ‘the most inspirational person I’ve ever worked for”, he says.

Morgan was editor of the Insight team during the year-long strike at Wapping and has no regrets about crossing the picket line: ‘Who on earth would want to strike in solidarity with that Mafia?’he asks.

‘Wapping was tectonic and it was great because we basically remodelled the British press. The journalists got back control of the newspaper so that somebody who drove a van couldn’t dictate whether our readers saw what we did with our working week.”

He is equally insistent over criticism that was levelled at the paper when he was features editor in the aftermath of the Thames TV This Week programme Death on the Rock, which revealed that an SAS team had gone to Gibraltar and murdered four members of the IRA.

The paper was accused of running a smear campaign against the programme and pursuing its own agenda by giving extensive coverage to an enraged Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s subsequent attacks on the ‘monopoly’of ITV.

Morgan insists there was no agenda. ‘It’s a ludicrous assertion,’he says. ‘To think The Sunday Times and Andrew Neil would adopt an agenda to protect Margaret Thatcher’s government only illustrates how naïve people are,’he says.

Morgan also dismisses criticism of the newspaper’s long-time proprietor Rupert Murdoch, particularly that he’s only interested in News Corp and the balance sheet. ‘It’s not true. He shows a real interest,’he says. ‘You can’t work on the subs desk at the Daily Express in the great days of Arthur Christianson and not be interested in journalism.

He just gives you a great budget and lets you get on with it,’he says.

‘I think he employs a very simple attitude – if it’s working, great – how much do you need next year to do more?”

Morgan has plans for when he leaves in July but is not revealing them yet – except to say he will not be leaving print journalism: ‘Too many ideas, too many good stories, too many great opportunities”.

Despite the current economic and technological challenges facing journalism, Morgan is optimistic about the future: ‘People have to face realities, but there has never been more opportunity: the stage is being recreated for journalists to operate on and they have never been more empowered to take their own destiny in their own hands.

‘They can start a blog and be a millionaire in a year. The opportunities are boundless.’

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