The Irish Times bears its breast
THE RETURN of Douglas Gageby as editor of The Irish Times, hailed in some quarters as a victory for "workers' power", was nothing of the sort. It was a last ditch effort by a desperate manageement to save its business from deepening financial worries, and three months later there is no guarantee it will succeed.
The journalists who have been floating in a cloud of euphoria since Gageby reoccupied his old office seem to have forgotten that the second coming usually presages the final Day of Judgement.
A statement drawn up at a meloodramatic meeting of the Times NUJ chapel on May 17 - in the last days of Fergus Pyle's reign - called for a return to "adventurous reporting and radical comment" as the crucial condition for reversing the decline in circulation and saving the paper. And most of the jourrnalists appear now to believe that, that condition having been. met, the paper, and their jobs, are safe for the foreseeable future. Whatever about the style of reporting, it is not clear what was meant by "radical comment" and when this is supposed to have dominated the columns of the Times.
Under Gageby in the late sixties and early seventies the Times had certainly ceased to be the house-organ of the Old Ascendancy, not fundamentally for any reason of ideology but on the good commercial gr<;mnd that the Old Ascenddancy was, literally, dying out. It cammpaigned for power-sharing in the North and contraceptives in the South, addmirable ideas, perhaps, but snugly within the emerging middle-class consensus. '
On issues which separated genuine radicalism from middle-class posturing strikes, to take a by no means random example - the Times under Gageby lined up loyally with all Right-thinking people.
Pyle, appointed on 4th July, 1974, was a naturally more cautious and fatally indecisive figure. He never managed to establish either rapport with his journalists or authority over them (not least because there were those among them who thought they should have had the job). When the Coalition put the media
generally under the fiercest ideological pressure experienced since the fifties he opted to play safer than Gageby would have. He lacked the confidence to do otherwise. With circulation falling, advertising scarce and burgeoning discontent in the newsroom, his last few months were unhappy, for himself as much as anyone else. D 'Olier Street is now changed.
Gageby has returned, on the face of it, with everything in his favour. The mood in the office is buoyant. Mild reflation of the economy has created a modest boom in advertising. The defeat of the Coalition has, however temmporarily, invigorated intellectual life. But the reason he has been reappointed in this
situation has nothing to do with radicalism or "workers' power" - the man with real clout in the Times boarddroom, Major McDowell, is an unlikely advocate of such things - but because management believes he has something more important by far: sound commmercial instincts.
His commercial judgement has already led to brighter presentation. The front page no longer looks as if it had been laid out in a mortuary: at least not -every day. There are more pictures and less padding in the news pages. Editorrials are breezily written and less arch in their occasional humour. Maeve Binchy's series 'On the Beaches' allowed the readership to be introduced to the delights of the skin-pic: after which it was but a short step to a concerned piece on breast-feeding .and boobs on page one (September 17). All in all, a deliberate step down-market, neatly enough taken. What it isn't is an upsurge of radicalism.
A newspaper which, in the space of a week, "finds it hard to see how ... the use of dogs (by gardai on street patrol) can seriously be objected to"
(September 14), criticises the new Fine Gael front bench for being insufficiently right-wing (September 15) and attacks bus-men for refusing to pass a picket
(September 17) is essentially conservative, no matter how sprightly the phrases with which the sentiments are expressed.
Whether it will be a commercial success is, NUJ opinion notwithstanding, a quite different question.
Gageby's biggest editorial problems are still to be faced. He has cleared out some of the deadest of the dead wood, but also lost four reporters - Joe Joyce, Walter Ellis, Donal Musgrave and Niall Kiely - who will be difficult to replace. Northern coverage continues to deeteriorate. The important News Focus page is an appalling mess. And he himself is quite capable of professional blundering. He personally dispatched the unfortunate Maeve Binchy to almost every paddling place on the western coast of Europe, the reports from which; pictures apart, became in the end so relentlessly trivial that only personal friends and sufferers from insomnia can have seen it all the way through to (gasp) Estepona. (September 21).
On the commercial side not all the omens are good. The decline in circuulation has been arrested but there has been no significant recovery of sales.
Although the increase in advertising revenue is welcome, the Times has, ominously, benefited less thari either the Press or Independent. Negotiations with print unions over the change from linotype to offset production are delicate to a degree. The £300,000 profit that Irish Times Ltd. reputedly needs this year to satisfy the Bank of Ireland is far from assured. Despite the euphoria of her brood, the Old Lady of D 'Olier Street, new make-up, bare breasts and all, is still not a well woman.