BRITISH journalism is in decline and newspapers and journalists have only themselves to blame. For the decline - in newspaper circulations and profitability - to be arrested, journalists and the media outlets for which they write must, somehow, regain the trust of their readers. But, given what is published on a daily basis, this is going to be very difficult to achieve.

These may sound like the views of the former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell.

But they are not. They are the views of Andrew Marr, who steps down as the BBC's political editor this week.

Speaking to a packed session at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last week, Marr said his trade has rarely been at such a low ebb. It is measure of Marr's popularity and the esteem in which he is held that this was the literary festival's fastest-selling event - all 570 seats had sold out within 48hours of going on sale.

In the question and answer session - chaired by Sunday Herald political commentator Iain Macwhirter - Marr elaborated on some of the themes explored in his recent book My Trade (Marr's account of British journalism which has already sold 50,000 copies in hardback since its launch in September 2004 and has just been published in paperback).

But he also offered up some fresh insights into the state of journalism today.

"Any way it's cut, journalism is in terrible trouble, " said Marr.

"Circulations, profitability and levels of trust are all in decline.

"There are over 200 columnists on UK national papers. There is an eruption, or a Babel, of columnists. Some of them do actually go out and do some proper work, and are therefore able to tell their readers something they didn't already know. But a large amount of it is repetitive garbage.

"It becomes airless and what you get is the same information being constantly circulated around - even though much of it is wrong."

"I just hate Polyfilla articles of the 'what it's like in my bathtub' variety."

In his assessment of this parlous state of affairs, Marr - who was born in Glasgow and educated at Loretto School and Cambridge university, but worked for titles including The Scotsman, The Economist, The Independent and The Observer before taking over the BBC political reins from Robin Oakley in 2000 - first examined the economics.

He said that far too many reporters are stuck in "glass boxes" outside London - a reference, perhaps, to his own days at the Canary Wharfbased, Mirror Group-controlled Independent in 1996-98.

"Not enough reporters are actually going out and getting stories, " complained Marr, who has won respect and admiration for his quirky, irreverent but insightful style as the Beeb's political editor.

He said that instead they are getting "squirted" stories off the internet. "It's also just laziness, " said Marr.

As part of his research for My Trade, Marr pored over newspapers dating back to the 1660s in the British Library. He found lively editions, full of directly reported hard news and positively "brimming with life" from the 1840s and 1850s.

"Often they read like a truncated version of a Charles Dickens novel."

But Marr also said that by the era of Gladstone versus Disraeli, the 1860s and 1870s, "most news had become terribly dull". Marr therefore believes that a certain dullness of the press must go in phases, and that we just happen to be in a "dull" phase just now.

Marr said he did not, however, believe that circulation falls need to inevitably continue along the same trajectory.

"Book sales are up. Arty films are up. This is not a country that is dumbing down. What's wrong is the way we've been doing it."

Marr described New Labour's use of spin, and the recycling of that spin by the British media during the Major years, as "a cynical but brilliant conspiracy to do that government to death." But he said that Alastair Campbell's spin strategy had backfired once Tony Blair moved into Downing Street.

"The use of the same spin strategy once they got into power turned out to be a disaster. By the time Campbell stepped down only one paper was still supporting Blair - The Times - and they had their own special reasons for doing that.

"David Hill [who took over from Campbell as the Prime Minister's chief media spokesman] is better. He does get lugubrious . . but at least he doesn't try and get you fired from your job if you get something wrong."

Marr was more guarded on the subject of Andrew Gilligan's fateful broadcast. Made on BBC's Radio Four Today show at 6.07am on May 29, 2003, this alleged that Downing Street had ordered an intelligence dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to be "sexed up".

Gilligan, Today's defence correspondent, said a "senior official in charge of compiling the dossier" had alleged that Blair's government had inserted the claim that weapons of mass destruction could be launched within 45 minutes.

Marr - who picks up the baton David Frost left behind at the Beeb, with the launch of a new political programme, Sunday AM in September - said Gilligan had been "a bit right and a bit wrong".

"He definitely found something out. But he left the BBC wide open. Alastair Campbell saw a fissure down which he could ram the government's counter-attack."

The rest - the suicide of weapons expert Dr David Kelly, the Hutton inquiry and ousting of BBC director general Greg Dyke and chairman of the corporation's board of governors, Gavyn Davies - is history.

Marr admitted that the loss of both Dyke and Davies "traumatised" the BBC.

"But I did not feel a new timidity was imposed on it after that, " he said. Marr highlighted a couple of his own subsequent scoops which had been potentially damaging to the government. One was the well-sourced revelation that no weapons of mass destruction would ever be found in Iraq.

Another was that Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown had had a meeting at which they had agreed to "fudge the five tests for Euro membership".

Marr implied that despite protestations from senior political sources, neither he nor the BBC needed to backtrack on either of these stories.

He was caught off guard by a question from Tam Dalyell, the former MP and the former leader of the House. Dalyell asked why journalists such as Marr had not bothered to question the veracity of the "Dodgy dossier", even though colleagues on the ground in Iraq, such as Robert Fisk and Patrick Cornwall, had already rubbished many of its claims. "It just never crossed my mind the dossier could be that ropey."

Marr admitted that most of the British press were prepared to suspend their disbelief and "collectively exaggerate" the terror threat - exactly the outcome the government had been hoping for in publishing the dossier, in February 2003.

It led to extraordinary headline such as The Sun's "Britain: 45 minutes from doom".

Marr admitted: "Most of us got over-excited [by that] and that is something that we can learn from."

However, Adrian Monck, professor of media at London's City University, and a former Sky News producer, disagreed with Marr's conclusions. He said: "I'm not as dismal about the present state of journalism as Andrew Marr is."

Monck does not believe today's plethora of columnists leads to a weaker press and claims that standards of reporting have rarely been more professional.

"When I grew up, you did not have a diverse range of commentators, " he said.

"You can now have an Asian who grew up in Luton as a commentator, something that was unheard of 15 years ago.

There's an incredible diversity of different voices from different backgrounds in newspapers now. Surely, having 200 commentators is a good not a bad thing.

"If you compare today's papers with those of 10 or 15 years ago, which is something we've been doing at City, they are streets ahead. Not just in the quality of their layout, design and production but also in the quality of their journalism."

ANDREW Marr will start the week a day earlier from Sunday, September 11, when his new morning show on BBC1 - Sunday AM - will air for the first time. Marr will be filling the slot vacated by Sir David Frost last May.


A prolific writer, journalist and broadcaster, Marr, who already presents Radio 4's Start the Week on Mondays, believes that UK journalistic standards are slipping. He used a session at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to explain why he believes this has come about. His latest book, My Trade, was published in paperback last month.