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Guardian allowed to print what the BBC can’t broadcast

It was bizarre listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in bed this morning. They were leading on the Guardian publishing a story about the cash for honours story without being able to give any details because the broadcaster is covered by an injunction.

I had to get out of bed to go to a computer to read that: “Detectives are investigating whether Lord Levy, Labour’s chief fundraiser, urged one of Tony Blair’s most senior aides to shape the evidence she gave to Scotland Yard, the Guardian has learned.”

It seems that the attorney general’s office did try to get an injunction against the Guardian in a telephone hearing but when the judge heard the paper was already being printed decided the case was “finely balanced” and refused make an order. The attorney’s lawyer had even asked if the van drivers had mobile phones so that they could be recalled.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, is quoted in his own paper saying:

The Guardian was today given a significant story about the cash for honours inquiry which we checked both with Lord Levy and with the police. Our story was referred to the attorney general’s office, who told us it was “similar” to another story which was the subject of an injunction. We asked to see the court order and were told it was confidential to the parties to the original action.

The story was well-sourced and clearly in the public interest. In this country there is a well-established principle that the state cannot exercise prior restraint on newspapers. If the attorney general – who may be a player in this action – is seeking to gag newspapers he must give the precise reason for doing so. In the absence of any specific details we decided to publish. Secret orders and prior restraint on the press have no place in an open society.

Magazines reduce falls in Archant’s profits

Behind the annual figures from Archant, the Norwich-based regional publisher which show a 6.8% drop in 2006 operating profit to £29.5m, lies an interesting shift in their business. Expansion of their 75-strong local magazine business is replacing some of the fall in profits of their four daily and 85 weekly papers.

The figure shows the decline in profits slowing from the 12.3% drop, from £36m to 31.6m, in 2005.

In both years the smaller magazine and contract publishing business, which has been acquiring additional titles, saw substantial profit growth, nearly doubling in two years. Last year it was up by 37.3% from £5m to £6.1m. The previous year it was up 49.9% from £3.3m for to £5m.

While the Archant announcements are not detailed they indicate that the performance of the newspaper business is flattered by the groups headline figures.

In the latest statement Richard Dewson, chairman of Archant, talks of a “robust performance in challenging conditions”. He says the rate of decline in advertising revenues has slowed.

He also says continued investment in their online presence is encouraging with unique visitors up by 66% last year. In January this year they had nearly 1.2m unique visitors.

The demise of labour reporting

Peter Wilby in Media Guardian today marks the passing of an era with a look back at specialist labour reporting. He says the expected departure of Barrie Clement from the Independent under their redundancy scheme will leave only the Morning Star with a labour correspondent.

Having spent a chunk of my career doing this work there is sadness but the need for traditional labour reporting declined rapidly under the onslaught of Mrs Thatcher and the fall in union membership.

It could be both an exciting and boring job. Hours spent in hotel lobbies doorstepping negotiations inevitably led to the hard drinking reputation. One difficulty was to avoid being used by the unions and/or employers as a part of the negotiations: when all else is failing try sending a message to the other side via the media.

Relationships could be difficult. On one occasion while working for the Evening Post-Echo in Hertfordshire I rang the late Moss Evans, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union for a comment on his daughter getting her first job in a strongly anti-union company.

He spluttered, condemned the paper for intrusion. Understandably, he was not happy having his Saturday morning disturbed. An hour later he rang back for a chat about the state of the nation, the unions and life in general. That somehow encapsulated the edgy relationship between labour reporters and their sources.

Industrial relations in the 1970s and 80s was where politics were played out. Working as a journalist in this field you were at the centre of things.

Moving on, Wilby examines the role of specialist journalists. He points out that editors, with some justice, fear they can get too close to the people they report on, and eventually become their tools.

He goes on to point out that during the 1984-5 miners’ strike labour reporters were by-passed by ministers who regularly briefed newspaper editors as well as the political lobby.

Since then, he says, ministers have routinely leaked many policy plans to the lobby rather than relevant specialist reporters. He writes:

They know the coverage will be less critical because lobby correspondents don’t have the expertise on, say, health or education to challenge what they are told. That’s how governments can get away with announcing the same “initiatives” several times over or with introducing, for example, NHS reforms that go back to what was ditched 10 years ago.

To those examples can be added issues such as pensions, contract workers and health and safety, all subjects which would have been covered by labour reporters, which are not now as robustly reported as they should be.