Interview: Stephen Glover

Glover has all the hallmarks of a British media heavyweight. His semi-detached Victorian town-house in leafy North Oxford is but a short trip away from Chipping Norton, where David Cameron, Rebekah Brooks and other political and media elites hobnob and ride horses. A mess of the day’s broadsheets and tabloids is the only clutter in his spotless drawing room, where I am invited to conduct our interview.

Before I can ask a question, Stephen, who is excited by my iPhone’s voice memo app – “It’s very cool, that!”- can’t resist telling me a trick of the trade: always test your equipment. He recounts the tale of his first interview as a young journalist for the Telegraph: “I got home and realised none of it was on the tape! A miserable experience”. I check my iPhone’s recording then, and twice more during the interview. Any aspiring hack could do worse than take advice from Stephen Glover.

Glover has now been a journalist for forty years. He began his career at Oxford, where he was co-editor of that bulwark of student journalism, The Isis, in 1974. His contemporaries include a whole host of media success stories and household names. Sir Peter Stothard, who later became Editor of the Times for ten years, was editing Cherwell at that time, whilst Tina Brown, who went on to edit Tatler, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, was a fellow Isis contributor.

Glover’s co-editor at The Isis was none other than Chris Huhne, a former Lib Dem cabinet minister who became embroiled in a scandal over driving licence penalty points last year. When the allegations against Huhne came out, Glover did what any good journalist would do. He invited his old friend to a champagne lunch before proceeding to write a scathing article in the Daily Mail.

Indeed, Glover has a ruthless streak that helps explain his rise up the greasy pole of British journalism. Despite struggling to find a permanent job after graduating, he readily quit his first employment at the Telegraph in order to create the Independent with Andreas Smith and Matthew Symonds in 1986. At a time when the print unions were striking and the broadsheet market was saturated with long-established brands, this was a high-risk gamble. Glover visibly lights up as he remembers the venture. “We had the idea that by using new technology to create a lower cost base, we could exploit a gap in the market for a new quality newspaper, and so that’s what we did!…I was quite young, I was prepared to take the risk.”

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At its inception, The Independent certainly shook up a rather stale British newspaper industry, sparking a price war and a spurt of innovation in layout design. Capitalizing on its freedom from proprietary influence, a key selling point, it attacked The Times and The Daily Telegraph in an advertising campaign that featured spoofs of those papers mastheads with the words ‘The Rupert Murdoch’ and ‘The Conrad Black’. By 1989, the paper’s circulation of over 400,000 rivalled that of its competitors.

But all good things must come to an end, and in the 1990s news readers shifted their attention to the internet, quickly followed by advertisers. As circulation and revenue plummeted, Glover et al. were forced to sell the paper to Mirror Group Newspapers and the media company of Tony O’Reilly, an Irish billionaire. “The original dream of three journalists owning the paper was destroyed” laments Glover.

The paper is now owned by Alexander Lebedev, who bought it for a £1 fee in 2010 following the bankruptcy of O’Reilly’s media group during the financial crisis. The Russian oligarch has been able to absorb the paper’s losses but under his ownership, the paper’s proud banner, ‘free from party political bias, free from proprietary influence’ has had to be dropped from the front page. “Because, I suppose, it was nonsense”.

Despite the Independent’s recent trials and tribulations, Glover remains cautiously optimistic about the future of the newspaper industry. “Ailing, but not dying,” he insists. I ask him to defend that statement, given falling circulations and the rise of citizen journalism, not to mention the blow to the credibility of the profession delivered by the recent phone-hacking scandal. “Look, journalism has a role and there’s a demand for it,” he counters. “People want newspapers, whether they read them online or in traditional form. They want expert analysis and explanation as well as information. I see no reason why this appetite should decrease”.

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The problem, as Glover sees it, is simply one of getting revenue out of the internet. According to the Economist newspaper, the web overtook newspapers as the under-30s most popular source of news in 2010. Social media and mobile apps are also beginning to steal readers. Yet, online advertising generates less than 20% of a newspaper’s advertising revenue, and online rates are falling. With so many billions of websites, the value of a single online page is far less than a printed page. And now that advertisers can measure the number of hits their advertisements receive, they know exactly when they are paying too much.

But this is only a hiccup. “There’s already innovation to get around this problem” says Glover. He references targeted advertising used by the Daily Mail, that matches up advertisements to consumers based on their internet history. This makes online advertising more attractive, and therefore more lucrative to newspapers. He’s confident there will be more of these devices. His advice to aspiring journalists? “Do it! Its really not all doom and gloom”.