REVIEW 

J'accuse…

Giving the Satchwell Lecture, Times editor John Witherow was hyper-critical of big tech companies.

By James Evelegh

J'accuse…
John Witherow giving the Satchwell Lecture on 10th June.

It’s fashionable in some publishing circles to play it cool when it comes to Facebook and Google. Yes, they have market dominance, but which of us wouldn’t take that if it were on offer. We just have to embrace the new reality, and work harder.

John Witherow is not one of them. The editor of The Times, giving the annual Society of Editors Satchwell Lecture last week at Stationers’ Hall, was scathing about how they’d “swallowed our digital advertising revenues”, “failed to pay publishers adequately for content” and not “acknowledged that they are indeed publishers, who should be responsible for what they publish.”

“They are unregulated, unchecked and unedifying in their disregard for the fractured society that is a by-product of their commercial success,” he said.

But, the lecture was far from being one big whinge. In a wide-ranging talk, he was upbeat in spite of the challenges we face, which he found “invigorating”.

The quality press offers something that the big tech giants don’t: “When information is ubiquitous, there is a huge thirst for well written, original articles that can make sense of the world in a clear and entertaining way.”

The mix of comment, analysis, exclusives and investigations is The Times’ considerable USP.

Quality news providers have a seriousness of purpose that social media never will. That is why, for instance, The Times will continue to deploy war correspondents (like the late Marie Colvin) to bear witness on the front line.

“Funnily enough,” he noted, “Facebook doesn’t fund war correspondents.”

While big tech companies need bringing down to size, technology itself isn’t the problem; it’s the way forward: “Look at the titles that are thriving in the digital age. The Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian. They all show that if you marry the sharpest technology with the highest quality journalism, that is the secret of success.”