Andrew Marr on the Media and the Monarchy, St Peter’s College, Oxford, 7th March 2012

St Peter's College OxfordOne day when there isn’t much happening, I’ll tell you about my time as a student. Inter alia, it involved (admittedly on different occasions)Princess Margaret, President Nixon, Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, and a promising young actor laddie known as little Hughie Grant. Maybe later.

St Peter's Freshmen 1978One of the perks of being an alumnus of somewhere rather prestigious, is that when you get invited back, it’s for rather entertaining events. So Mrs Chrisparkle and I were pleased to go and see a talk by Andrew Marr on The Media and The Monarchy in the College Chapel yesterday.

Mark DamazerHe was introduced by the Master, Mark Damazer, who took over the post in 2010 and has been succesfully dynamic in turning around the fortunes and profile of the college. I met him last year; a very nice chap with slightly scary undertones of massive intellect.

Andrew MarrAndrew Marr has just completed extensive work in the company of the Royal Family for his recently broadcast television series about the Queen in her Diamond Jubilee year; so he has had unrivalled opportunities to observe and assess their contribution to the country. His insights were indeed fascinating. He is very impressed with how hard the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh work – he said the rows of people simply waiting to shake hands could sometimes be extraordinarily long – and he emphasised how some of this work must surely be extremely boring, which is something I had never considered. He feels a number of Prince Philip’s alleged gaffes are simply “look at me!” moments to alleviate the dullness. He is also very impressed with Princess Anne’s wit and wisdom; he feels she is a sensible person who knows Where It’s At. In response to a question, he suggested that when Prince Charles is king he will find it very difficult – but will have no alternative – to keep his mouth shut when on official meetings with leaders of whom he disapproves. Being nice to the Chinese, whilst being a firm supporter of a free Tibet, was one example.

St Peter's College ChapelBut to go back to the beginning of his talk, Andrew Marr started with a snapshot of the year 1997. It was not only the year Princess Diana died, it was also the start of the Blair era. It struck me that to any first year students attending, 1997 must seem like the dark ages – or at least the stuff of childhood. Strange how I remember it so well. Back in 1997, Andy (as his friends call him) pointed out that the circulation of newspapers was massive and that today, by comparison, it has dropped by approximately 40%. Apparently only the Sun and the Mail have held their own; all other papers have plummeted. In those days he was the editor of The Independent. His observations about newspaper proprietors were very revealing; he said to own a newspaper you need a massive amount of money which you are basically prepared to lose. If you own a newspaper you do it for a different reason other than merely seeking profit. He asked one of the then owners of The Independent, Tony O’Reilly, why he did it – and he said it was because it was simply nice to be able to go through the door of 10 Downing Street and be accepted there.

St Peter's ChapelOne of Andrew Marr’s main concerns for the future of journalism is his belief that you have to have professional journalists, who are paid a good wage and who can guarantee a degree of assurance that research has properly taken place and the truth has been fairly arrived at. With the falling numbers of newspapers actually being sold, and some online news sources not reaching sufficient numbers of readers (the Times paywall is a considerable barrier, no surprise), how is the profession going to maintain itself?

SPC PlaqueMr Marr also talked about Leveson, and what he thinks its impact will be – which is actually that the current shame being felt by the newspaper world will probably be as low as it gets. He doesn’t think that Rupert Murdoch is the worst thing that’s ever happened to British newspapers; but he did have some revealing information about the recent launch of the Sun on Sunday. Mockups and pilot issues had been created, as the paper started to take shape, but the editors were far from convinced that the definitive format had been created. At a meeting one Sunday, Rupert Murdoch asked the team how the preparations were going. Good, they replied, we are getting there. Excellent, said RM, I want it launched next Sunday. Sharp intakes of breath all round. Erm, are you sure, they nervously proffered. Yes, next Sunday, have it done, was his reply. Given the short time they had to bring out the first edition, Andrew Marr thought it was a remarkably professional achievement.

Mr Marr’s talk was peppered with a number of humorous observations; here are two that I find most memorable. He obviously finished his degree the same year as me, as he said it was a time when there were simply no jobs around – 1981. Actually, the old joke was, “What do you say to an Arts Graduate with a job? I’ll have a Big Mac, please”. I think things may have come full circle. Anyway, I digress. Mr Marr was on his was to Edinburgh for an interview to work on The Scotsman newspaper. He got on the sleeper train at Kings Cross and, on entering the cubicle where he was to have bottom bunk for the night, was met by the top bunk occupant, a Scottish gentleman, brandishing 24 cans of super strength lager and three packets of cigarettes, who said something along the lines of “I hope you’re not a soft southern poof who won’t share a few bevies tonight”. By the time Mr Marr arrived in Edinburgh he was rancid with drink, choked with cigarettes and a blotchy mess. He knew he’d blown his chance of a decent job. However, on arrival at the Scotsman offices he was met by a newsroom full of similarly blotchy, drunken, smoky journos and he knew he had fallen on his feet.

John PrescottAnother nice tale was of his waiting inside a Brighton hotel during conference season, presumably ready to do some reporting, when along bustles John Prescott, a swarm of assistants behind him with folders, files and cases. On seeing Andrew Marr, Prescott firmly marches up to him, stabs him with his pointy finger and says “You bastard! You f***ing bastard! I’ll f***ing get you!” and then he marches off, leaving Mr Marr perplexed and wondering what on earth he’d done to deserve it. About a minute later Prescott returns and says “sorry mate, wrong person” and then walks off again.

All in all a very interesting and enjoyable talk and question and answer session, which was full of fascinating snippets of information and personal anecdotes. Thanks to St Peter’s for the invitation, and for continuing to share the college activities with the alumni.