So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, good bye.
Adieu, adieu to yer and yer and yerrrr!
The time has come to part. After 17 years, I am hanging up my WMN keyboard. I do so with great regret. It has been enjoyable, thought-provoking and fun, but new opportunities in academia beckon.
It might have been nice to have reached a satisfyingly rounded number like 20 years but hey, that’s life.
Newspaper columns are notoriously short-lived gigs.
When the then-new WMN editor Barrie Williams and I hatched the plan for a column on Europe over lunch at the delightful Moorland Links hotel back in August 1995, neither of us thought it would be sustainable in the long term. Personally, I gave it six months.
But it was an original, innovative idea and no other regional paper ran such a column. It was worth a shot.
And it worked. It won the UK Press Gazette Columnist of the Year award in 1999, having been shortlisted twice the previous years.
A great deal has changed over the 17 years. Not just in the EU but in British journalism. Those changes are being exacerbated by the economic downturn, but their roots lie far deeper.
For all society’s cries of disgust at the phone-hacking scandal, the sad fact is that salaciousness sells. Responsible journalism today finds it hard to break even.
Two years ago The Sun and the News of the World were posting pre-tax profits of £40 million. Their sister papers The Times and The Sunday Times posted pre-tax losses of more than £87m.
Closer, the French magazine which last week published the topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge, simply factored in any legal compensation to Kate as part of the necessary business costs. Its sales have soared.
Yet for those of us trying to earn a crust at the opposite end of the market, reporting and discussing public affairs, times are tough. The quality nationals are struggling. The provincial press has its back against the wall. Circulations are falling.
The pressures are not just on newspapers. News reporting in local radio and regional television is being mercilessly squeezed.
Local offices are being closed. “Local” news is now delivered from studios that are remarkably remote from the towns and villages they purport to cover. What concerns me is the consequence of this remorseless shedding of staff. Not only does the quality of the journalism, eventually, suffer but important local affairs will go unreported.
If the Localism Act truly does bite, local councils’ scope for action will expand. They are already acquiring an important new role in health issues.
The mighty Cornwall Council and others merit detailed scrutiny, as will the new Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon and Cornwall Police, who will be elected in November.
The growth of pyramids of academy schools also creates a new field of important local decision-makers. Who’s watching them?
And then we have MPs and MEPs, all of whom merit coverage and scrutiny.
The WMN is doing a valiant job holding the line. Compared to many other papers, it’s a remarkable success story – a reflection on its talented staff – but circumstances for all newspapers are difficult.
A key problem is the change in how we consume news.
Huge amounts of news is available free online,which is a profound challenge to any credible private sector journalistic business. Serious news businesses cannot live by advertising alone.
Equally seriously, the nature of the news the customers want is changing.
Celebrities are all the rage, sport is always popular, but public affairs are increasingly neglected. Simultaneously, turnout at elections is falling.
Yet none of us have stopped caring about the impact public affairs have upon our lives.
But enough. It is time to go. To those readers who passionately disagree with me, can I thank the courteous among you for several delightful lunches and thought-provoking discussions.
To those who agree with
me – particularly the many members of the European Movement – my affectionate thanks for your company and hospitality along the way.
I wish you and the terrific staff on the WMN all the very best for the future.