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The Hugh Cudlipp Lecture 2009: Rebekah Wade

Below is the text of Rebekah Wade's speech, delivered at the London College of Communication on 26th January 2009.

By Rebekah Wade

Good evening.

Thank you for inviting me to give this fifth Cudlipp lecture. My special thanks also to Lady Cudlipp and to Paul Charman, Director of Journalism here, for organising this event.

The challenging future of national and regional newspapers is now the staple diet of media commentators.

If you have been reading the press writing about the press you’d all be forgiven for questioning your choice of career.

I’m not denying we’re in a tough place – we are.

But I don’t want to use this speech to make grand statements on the future of our industry.

I want to talk to you about journalism.

As students, you will be very familiar with the academic analysis.

So tonight I thought I could share some of my own experiences in this often infuriating but always fascinating profession.

I started out as Eddie Shah’s tea girl and went on to attend this college before starting work at The News of The World.

This educational video, produced in the 1940’s by a Professor Twogood, reminded me of my early years.

[video clip]

Fortunately the majority of my colleagues did NOT share Twogood’s view on women in the newsroom.

But there were a few!

When, at the age of 27, I was made deputy editor of the News of the World, some struggled with the concept.

At the corporate golf day, a senior male executive lost the buttons off his shirt.

The editor and I were busy meeting and greeting our high profile guests when suddenly a golf shirt and some buttons were thrust into my hand.

‘’When you’ve gotta minute darlin’ - sew ‘em back on for me, I’m teeing off in twenty minutes.’’

Despite needlework not being my strong point, I did have the shirt ready in time.

And we were all sorry to hear what happened to him.

But trust me, no amount of studying you do here will prepare you for the sheer exhilaration of working in a newsroom.

It’s intoxicating. Because as a journalist, you can make a difference.

And today I hope you will leave this lecture hall more convinced than ever that journalism is the career for you.

I think it’s important that we start by dealing with the doom mongering.

Firstly - newspaper pessimism is age old.

Nearly as old as some of our media commentators I can see in the audience.

In ancient Rome, Julius Caesar produced the Acta Diurna. A daily gazette described by historians as:

‘Hand written journals posted in Rome and the provinces with the intention of feeding the populace information.’

As well as political decisions and military campaigns, I smiled when I read that these newsletters were said to record:

‘Gladiatorial contests, astrological omens, scandals, notable births, deaths and marriages, trials and executions.’

If you think about it not much has changed.

Our newspapers are still full of:

Gladiatorial contests.

We just call it Prime Ministers Question Time.

Astrological Omens

Our own Mystic Meg


Well they did until Justice Eady came along.

Notable Deaths

Obituary pages are still a must read.

Notable births

And trials and executions….well, we do have The Daily Mail.

Even in 59 BC these newsletters caused great debate and later rulers banned them, feeling they had no future.

The first modern newspaper was published to general scepticism in 1609.

But four hundred years later we are still here.

I believe for one reason only:


We shouldn’t fool ourselves.

I am not alone in thinking 2009 will see a seismic change to our national newspapers.

And to understand some of the issues, it’s worth a quick analysis of our industry in 2008.

The ABC’s of our national daily newspapers show that last year 382,000 people stopped buying a daily paper.

And if you look at this chart – is it a co-incidence that the biggest losses are where we’ve seen the biggest cuts in journalism?

Of course, the answers to our industry problems are more complex than that.

Last year, we gave away over 163 million copies in bulks to maintain these levels.

We listed 270 million foreign sales.

We gave away 120 million free CD’s and DVD’s - of questionable quality and at enormous cost - just to rent readers.

We paid our retailers and wholesalers over 800 million pounds in margins that have outstripped RPI.

And while 1,400 corner shops closed, it’s been years since we developed alternative new routes to market.

We saw another increase in the number of free newspapers. In 2008 we distributed 639 million copies.

The huge growth in digital still doesn’t pay for high quality journalism.

We give away our expensive editorial content free online without an economic model that compensates for the loss in traditional revenues.

The rising cost of news and magazine print is in double figures and there is the small matter of the recession.

But despite all these challenges, there are huge positives. Especially if you compare our industry to television.

Despite the credit crunch, 3.5 billion daily newspapers were sold last year with an estimated 1.8 billion pounds in advertising revenue.

Of course like any business in a recession, we have to cut costs and drive revenue to survive.

But cost cutting in this business only works if the savings are reinvested in journalism.

The death knell is already ringing for publishers who have forgotten our reason for being.

And leaving aside state funded and trust supported journalism, those of us struggling to survive in a free market have seen our competitors in the business change dramatically.

At The Sun, our scale means we now view prime time ITV as more of a competitor for advertising revenue than other newspapers.

Ten years ago, 30 TV programmes delivered a larger audience than The Sun. Now there are only three or four on commercial channels that can consistently deliver that scale:

Paid for media undersells itself. So even with our reach and demographics, national newspaper advertising revenues are predicted to be down 12% this year.

As an industry we have perfected the art of beating ourselves up.

Sometimes I think we need a PR.

With these market forces, it’s even more important to remember why we exist:


Newspapers do not have the monopoly.

Matt Drudge and Perez Hilton regularly break stories that we would kill for at The Sun. Sky News, ITN, compete for buy ups and investigations.

And with the growth of citizen journalism the public are competing with news agencies.

In Germany, Bild are even selling their readers digital cameras complete with USB so they can upload their video content directly to the newsdesk. Which I think is very exciting.

Hugh Cudlipp is remembered for his belief in campaigning journalism.

Great press campaigns can change history and shape new laws. They can build a bridge between public opinion and public policy.

But they also require monetary investment and long term commitment.

The Times under Thomas Barnes campaigned brilliantly and relentlessly for the introduction of the Reform Act of 1832 which set this country on the road to universal suffrage.

The Sunday Times uncovered the scandal of Thalidomide victims in the 70s and five years later provided thousands of children with much needed compensation.

The Daily Mail’s Stephen Lawrence campaign for justice pioneered brave and uncharted waters for newspapers as did the Daily Mirrorr’s fight for the ‘’Bridgewater Four’’.

All these campaigns and hundreds more have made a huge difference to the lives of ordinary people in this country.

Whether it is The Guardian’s call to Free Our Data or The Telegraphs fight for savers, The Independent’s battle for Fair Pay or The Mail’s ban on plastic bags.

They are all valuable ways of connecting with your readership above and beyond any marketing or promotional strategy.

Every newspaper, has in its history, causes for pride.

However, to make this point, I will have to use my own experiences to demonstrate how this connection, this collective power between a newspaper and it’s readers can be a force for good.

Last November on a visit to Afghanistan I found myself wandering around camp Bastian in search of a missing page three girl, (as you do) when I was apprehended by an angry sergeant major.

With clear contempt for my blue press flak jacket and out of bounds location, he sneered as he demanded to know what media outlet I was from.The Sun, I said. Hoping this was the right answer.

Well, it was as if I had told him he was coming back home to Brise Norton with us that night.

A broad smile. A big handshake. A thank you for all the Sun readers support. A shout to his colleagues, more thanks, everyone wearing our Help for Heroes band.

Their pride in our pride for them.

And Becky, 22, from Bromley was safely returned.

But the serious aspect of my trip was to see for myself the result and the importance of our Help For Heroes campaign.

Travelling from Kabul to the farthest forward operating bases in Helmand I discovered that their gratitude for any support is overwhelming.

The hostile public opinion to the war in Iraq had led to creeping anti troop sentiment throughout the UK.

This meant desolate parades for homecoming regiments, uniformed soldiers being jeered at in the streets, a lack of support, understanding and sympathy for all they were going through in theatre and a feeling of neglect on their return.

When Bryn and Emma parry set up this charity for the war wounded in 2007 they approached us for help.

Our campaign began with this page one splash and eighteen months later Sun readers have raised millions for state of the art rehabilitation facilities.

We’ve had a number one song from X –Factor.

Prince Charles hosted the first ever Royal Military Awards.

The Prime Minister committed to more funding and the opposition agreed to do the same.

But most importantly the campaign moved the dial on the public’s attitude to the military.

Right now in Helmand, British troops are engaged in some of the fiercest fighting they’ve encountered so far.

Many of our young soldiers have died in this latest push into Taliban strongholds. Others will return physically or psychologically damaged for life.

But if you look at some of the newspapers you’d be forgiven for being totally unaware of this latest battle.

There is now great public awareness and support for the daily heroism displayed by our Armed Forces.

It is up to all of us to report it.

Sarah’s law was one of the more controversial campaigns of my career.

I’ve never really talked about it but in some ways it represents one of my points about campaigning journalism.

Listening to your readers.

The entire nation grieved over the abduction and murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne and like everyone else I was deeply moved by this terrible tragedy.

I had just joined the News of the World as editor and after the daily pace of The Sun, I was frustrated by the waiting room atmosphere of a Sunday paper newsroom on a Tuesday.

So I took a chance and drove down to see Mike and Sara Payne who were still staying with Sarah’s grandparents. The press pack who were outside waiting for the next police conference, were more than a little surprised when I turned up on the doorstep.

I introduced myself to the Family Liaison officer and I told him I was the editor of the News of the World and I would like to offer my help and support to the Payne family.

Inexplicably Mike and Sara agreed to see me and repercussions of that meeting started the campaign you now know as Sarah’s Law.

It was immediately evident that Sara Payne was an incredible woman. Despite being racked with grief she was determined to get justice for daughter.

She told me that the police already had a suspect. He was a local convicted paedophile whose modus operandi fitted the crime.

He had previous of abusing and abducting and yet he was living near Sarah’s grandparents, unmonitored by any authorities, left ready to strike again.

Roy Whiting it turned out, was one of 110,000 convicted paedophiles living in the community.

The huge inconsistencies and loop holes in the 1997 Sex Offenders Act meant that there were tragedies like Sarah waiting to happen and that all the relevant agencies including the NSPCC had fought for three years to correct this legislation.

But nothing had been done.

From that first meeting, Sara and I spoke nearly every day. We were determined to change the law in Sarah’s memory.

Since then, Sara has lobbied at least five home secretaries and debated the rights and wrongs of the campaign up and down the country with great success.

Naming and shaming was my responsibility.

It was a blunt and contentious way of informing the public of these gaps in policy.

Hard lessons were learnt but I don’t regret the campaign for one minute:

Because in the end it was a simple truth.

As a parent, would you like to know if there was a convicted paedophile living next door?

The answer was always yes.

Parts of the media went on the attack with a blatant disregard for the facts of the campaign or more importantly their readers’ opinions on the matter.

After we published the first list, a group of mothers from an impoverished housing estate in Portsmouth, took to the streets to protest.

The BBC described them as ‘an angry lynch mob’.

What the BBC did not report was that the mothers had just discovered that Victor Burnett, a paedophile with 14 convictions for raping and abusing young boys between the ages of four and nine, had been re-housed amongst them unmonitored by the authorities.

Totally unaware of his background, the residents had complained for years about Burnett’s inappropriate behaviour towards their children but their voices, until then, had remained unheard.

This lack of control and supervision outraged the public. Weak sentencing, the incredible high rate of recidivism and the lack of clear and strong legislation meant there were predators all over the country.

Eight years later, just last month, Sara Payne was awarded a well deserved MBE for her tireless work and for the fourteen new pieces of legislation that form part of Sarah’s Law.

She rightly thanked the general public, in particular the News of the World readers, as without their collective power, nothing would have changed.

But campaigns can also be a lot of fun.

Years ago, an agency filed a story that villagers in a remote corner of Spain were going to celebrate a festival by pushing a donkey off a cliff to it’s death.

Blackie, was to be the sacrificial ass.

The affinity the population have with animals meant they were up in arms at this barbaric cruelty.

In turn, this reaction sparked a Fleet street dash to rescue Blackie and return him to a donkey sanctuary back in England. The victor would surely gain the publics gratitude and lets not forget - an uplift in sales.

The Sun, first on the scene, convinced the farmer to sell us Blackie and with the deal done, went off to celebrate their scoop.

Fatal error.

The Daily Star, arrived, kidnapped Blackie and drove him a hundred miles away to a ‘safe field’ and reaped all the glory.

Similarly, the Tamworth Two – five month old piglets who escaped from a lorry as they were being unloaded at a slaughterhouse -captured the publics imagination.

The search was on for the missing pair Butch and Sundance and once located, the pigs found themselves at the centre of a media auction to save their bacon.

£15,000 later, making them the most expensive pork in history, the Daily Mail had their scoop.

The fight between The Sun and The Mirror to return the 1966 football to Geoff Hurst is legendry newspaper tale.

The story broke that one of the German players, Helmut Haller had kept the winning ball after our world cup victory and thirty years later was now trying to sell it.

Our football loving nation demanded it back.

And Fleet Street was happy to oblige.

At least ten reporters and almost as many photographers descended on some sleepy German village all determined to get the ball which was not much more than a deflated bit of old leather.

£120,000 later, Helmut looked like he’d actually won the world cup and The Mirror were victorious.

These light hearted campaigns are often dismissed by ‘worthy’ sorts. They clearly forget that the readership have a whole gamut of emotions including a sense of humour.

Campaigns provide a unique connection to the public especially when the subject matter is of a serious nature.

For me, nothing can illustrate this connection better than our recent Baby P campaign.

The public outcry was deafening. And we began our fight for justice with a determination to expose the lack of accountability and responsibility for Baby P’s brutal death.

We delivered 1.5 million signatures to Downing Street and the collective power worked.

Children’s Secretary Ed Balls was forced to use emergency legislation to ensure that those responsible were held to account.

We received many many thousands of letters at The Sun about our Baby P coverage. I’d like to read you one:

‘I have never been a huge fan of The Sun, however I thank you for the coverage of Baby P. I am so grateful for the campaign. This is not a modern day witch-hunt but a petition for justice. Please, please do not relent.

In contrast, I’d like to quote from an article in…. ‘The Guardian.’

"Full of fury and repellent hysteria isn’t that part of the game? This is less about the creation of public emotion and more about its manipulation.

This knee-jerk tabloid kicking reaction is just dull.

But total disregard and respect for public opinion never ceases to amaze me.

They demanded accountability.

And as a result of the campaign, some, just some, of those responsible were removed from office without compensation.

Or as this Sun reader wrote:

‘The tabloid press, which the arty-farty press like to look down on so much, has shown that it prides morality over political correctness.’

There is nothing more rewarding than setting the news agenda with your own story.

Every newspaper editor, every journalist, lives for a great scoop.

The newsroom needs journalists who have great contacts, the reporters who can break the news not just report it, the photographers that can bring in the exclusives.

Great investigations, like yesterdays Sunday Times expose of The Labour Lords are lifeblood to newsapers.

I read an article a few weeks ago about The Penny Trumpet that began in 1841. The slogan for this single sheet, one penny publication was ‘quality not quantity’.

A phrase now over used but still a lesson to us all.

The quality of our journalism will make or break our industry not the recession.

Our ancient craft is to tell many people what few people know.

The sheer thrill of disclosure motivates the best journalists.

And as an industry, we should use our collective power to campaign for the freedom to do so.

This country is full of regulators, lawyers and politicians eager to frame and implement legislation that would constrain freedoms hard won over centuries.

We are already losing those freedoms. Privacy legislation is being created by the drip, drip of case law in the High Court without any reference to parliament.

Sometimes I suspect most of the media commentariat are suffering from Munchausen syndrome.

They are certainly making us suffer unnecessarily!

Only journalism allows us to exist. Yet they often decry it’s existence.

And it’s the epitome of self-flagellation when The Guardian publishes Max Mosley’s views on press freedom.

The relentless negativity, this almost morbid fascination with our own demise, must stop.

News International, Associated Newspapers and The Telegraph Group are battling to change the restrictive and prohibitively expensive Conditional Fee Arrangements.

But we need the rest of the industry to win this fight.

The silence is sometimes deafening.

The new distinguished chair of the Press Complaints Commission, Peta Buscombe certainly has her work cut out.

You would understand if the public were interested in our naval gazing. But they are not.

No one really lives in the bubble world of media-metroville.

And every successful business needs to know it’s customer.

Every year, my editorial team go on vacation with Sun readers either at a caravan park or holiday camp.

This year we are off to Sunny Blackpool for four nights as part of our £9.50 holiday promotion.

In 2008 nearly 2.5 million people took up the offer. It makes The Sun the biggest short haul travel firm in the UK.

The holiday is invaluable time with our readership and there are often some surreal moments.

On one such weekend at Butlins in Bognor – we were in the Sun and Moon pub having a few drinks, when one reader decided to make a speech.

‘I love The Sun’, he said, ‘it’s the best. But the editor should be fired.’

Much laughter from my merry team,

He went on to explain the reason for my demise:

‘I couldn’t believe it the other day, I picked up the paper to find that Yasser Arafat’s death got less coverage than Wayne Rooney’s car crash. I mean what’s the world come to?

My political editor George Pascoe Watson was thrilled. Clearly in vino veritas, George stands up and announces: ‘old chap, I’d just like to say on behalf of the political team at The Sun, I totally agree with your sentiments.

‘To be honest mate’ replied the reader. ‘I’m not sure why they employ you either. No one’s interested in that Westminster claptrap you write.’

But the upside of really knowing who your readers are is worth it.

And knowing who your future readers are – is the holy grail.

Tesco’s boss Sir Terry Leahy regularly operates the check out in one of his stores and he even gets his executives to live with Tesco customers for a week to really understand their wants.

As an industry our data collection is traditionally poor. New media has made that more effective but we still trail behind companies like Tesco.

Obama’s election campaign can teach us a lot. The data he already has on his supporters is immense.

We need new ways of engagement - to find out everything about our supporters.

So we can understand their buying habits and provided them with the relevant content, promotions, offers and services they require.

I said, at the beginning, I wasn’t here to give an obituary on our industry, far from it.

Despite our ‘internal’ disagreements, the depth of quality and diversity in our national newspapers will be our salvation.

But it’s important to be prepared for the challenges ahead.

Investment in journalism is the key to long term prosperity yet cost cutting is inevitable.

Journalism needs a free press to thrive yet under the threat of censorship the industry remains divided.

We’ve been masters of the written word for centuries yet we fear a future beyond print.

An independent media is imperative to a democracy yet the recession will hurt all but state funded journalism.

Our traditional business model is still profitable yet we need new ways to connect with our readers to stop the decline.

These contradictions are subject to deep thought in most newspaper companies.

I am optimistic.

And as an industry, we owe it to you, students of our trade, to rise to these challenges.

We need to ask ourselves:

Can we unite to fight against a privacy law that has no place in a democracy?

Can we agree that self-regulation is the best way to deal with the occasional excesses of a free press?

Can we have a press that has the courage and commitment to listen to and fight for its readers?

Can we survive this economic climate if we keep investment in journalism at the heart of what we do?

I suggest to you tonight: in the words of Bob The Builder, plagiarised by Barak Obama.

Yes. We. Can.

Thank you.