Who will pay when Standards are free?

NORMAN GILLER started his Fleet Street career on the sports desk of the Evening Standard, the London commuter institution which, from Monday, becomes a freesheet. As you might guess, Giller is not impressed

Whoever decided that London’s Evening Standard should be given away could find themselves in the Hall of Shame with the geniuses who chose to change the taste of Coca-Cola, with the brains who thought the Post Office would be better “re-branded” Consignia and with Gerald Ratner after calling his products “crap”.

My instant reaction is that the Standard‘s owners are making a whopper of a mistake. They have shown us Plan A, but there can be no Plan B. What on earth can follow giving the paper away? That does not bear thinking about at a time when journalists’ jobs are falling like autumn leaves.

There is no way the Standard can go back to charging a cover price. My fear is that it will just become another part of London’s litter.

Rarely have I wanted so much to be proved wrong when I say it can only end in tears.

Surely it was freesheets like London Lite, Metro and the late and unlamented thelondonpaper which got the Standard into the current state? Roy Greenslade, guru of the media bloggers, has always waged war on freesheets, and I was looking forward to reading him giving the Standard decision the full throttle treatment.

But then I remembered that my hero writes a brilliant media column for the Standard every Wednesday. I wonder what Roy thinks of the idea that he is now showcased in a giveaway, the type of paper he has pilloried in the past for polluting the capital and Tube trains?

In his usually piercing Media Guardian column, Professor Greenslade gives a factual report and there is a footnote of a declaration of interest because of his Standard column. A muzzled Greenslade is not a pretty sight. He is going to need to spin better than Shane Warne if he is to feel free in a freebie.

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The Standard is where I started my Fleet Street career as a holiday relief sub on the sports desk. That was back in the days when there were three paid-for London evenings, the Star, News and Standard. Or, as one of the pavement vendors used to shout: “La-di-dah, Evening Blues, Stand at Ease …”

What is going to happen to the Standard sellers? Who is fighting their corner for them? A friend in London tells me he asked one this week. He wrote to me: “I asked the vendor on Charing Cross station what he was going to do from next week. ‘I dunno,’ he replied with a sad shrug of the shoulders. ‘I might work by giving them away, but we haven’t been told yet. And we won’t be able to do it on the station, we’ll have to do it out there,’ he said, pointing towards the Strand. Poor sod.”

Back in “my day”, you were happy to pay for the Standard for the writing genius of George Whiting, the authority on football of Bernard Joy, the cricket comments of John Thicknesse and the cartoon magic of Jak. There have been a procession of outstanding sports reporters since, including good friends such as Peter Blackman, Michael Hart and Barry Newcombe. They were always worth paying for.

THE SUBJECT of the giveaway Standard naturally came up on Tuesday at Bill Bateson’s going-away bash. If that sounds an irreverent description of a funeral, then you needed to be there to appreciate that it is the perfect portrayal.

We literally bashed Bill away in the tradition of the printers’ banging-out. This followed a series of hilarious tributes from Bill’s son Paul, his son-in-law Crispin, David Norrie and Fred Burcombe, my former No2 in local newspaper days who became a brilliant assistant sports editor to Bill on — his description — the News of the Screws.

Fred spent much of his beautifully chiselled oratory talking directly to Bill’s coffin as if in conversation with his old boss, asking if he wanted to rewrite his words — or “as usual, spike them”. Among the gems Fred shared with us was the day that he turned up at the office with a Kevin Keegan style bubble perm. Ex-sailor Bill, for whom everything had to be ship shape, ties worn and all in tidy order, was aghast.

“He fined me six pints,” said Fred, to a roar from the capacity crowd, who were encouraged to make Arsenal-style chants.

It was a unique funeral for a unique journalist, and certainly the only funeral I’ve been to where the one hint of religion was somebody praying that for Bill’s sake, Arsenal win some silverware this season.

There was a great turn-out of journos considering that the celebration (Bill’s description) was in deepest Cornwall, and it spoke volumes for the respect with which Bill will always be held. We naturally talked shop and I discussed the Standard plans with Newcombe, former Standard sports editor Tom Clarke (also ex-sports boss of The Times and Sporting Life) and Pat Collins, one of the pall bearers who carried the coffin to the Match of the Day theme.

We were unanimous in thinking it is a mistake to give away the paper. Pat, who cut his teeth as a columnist on the late, lamented Evening News, described it — in a rare lapse into stating-the-bleeding obvious — as “a desperate measure”.

Perhaps it was best summed up by Fred Burcombe, who told us in his memorable farewell to “BillB” that the most used Bateson catchphrase in his retirement was: “The game’s gone.”

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