Gagging editors

Roy Greenslade, former editor, writes about gagging former editors, a subject dear to the heart of this former editor. This comes after the ousted chief of the Sunday Telegraph finally felt she had to speak out about the sniping at her by her former bosses. Says Roy about gag orders:

They are imposed by owners and managers who, for one reason or another, seem not to understand the concept of freedom of expression. I experienced this when I departed as editor of the Daily Mirror back in 1991 and soon realised just how iniquitous it is to be gagged. Like Sands, I suffered from the fact that I was unable to answer back to the critics of my editorship. And, like her, one comment too many – in my case, by my former employer, Robert Maxwell – spurred me to speak out. In so doing, I ended up in court when Maxwell sued me for breach of contract, and I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen to Sands. If it does, she might like to know that the judge, Mr Justice Rougier, found for me on the grounds that it was unfair for one party to the agreement to speak while the other could not.

But let me get back to the general principle. We work in a profession (or industry, whatever) that is founded on disclosure, on the notion that nothing should be secret. Yet almost every ex-editor (and this affects regional editors too) is inhibited from speaking. I understand that no editor should reveal a commercial secret, which includes, say, the existence of plans to turn a paper from broadsheet to tabloid, or the timing of a cover price rise or the salary of a columnist. But there is no earthly reason why ex-editors should not have the right to say that they felt let down by a lack of resources or that their editorial initiatives were stifled or, in my case, that my boss grossly interfered in editorial matters.

Some will say that editors would be free to speak if they simply walked away without taking a pay-off. If they take money then it’s reasonable that employers should have their silence in return. Great in theory, folks, but utterly naive. Editors who are fired very rarely get the chance to be editors again. Their pay-offs compensate them for the fact that, in career terms, they need a financial cushion. That reality should not be used to prevent them from their right to free speech.

My letter to the editor of the NY Times Book Review in March, 1992, tells my tale:

Your review of “To the End of Time” says that managing editors of Time Inc. magazines were presented with a contract that tied their jobs and severance to a clause forbidding them to denigrate, criticize or ridicule the company and its products. That is true. But the review also repeats Richard Clurman’s assertion that all the company’s editors signed the contract. That is false.

I was the founding managing editor of Entertainment Weekly, and I refused to sign the contract precisely because of that gag clause. I said then that I was appalled to see an institution that lived by freedom of speech trying to muzzle the speech of anyone, especially its own managing editors (not to mention other journalists and critics).

If Mr. Clurman had bothered to get in touch with me and check his facts, he would have heard a great deal about the contract and more — for I retained the right to criticize, ridicule, denigrate or simply talk about Time Warner when I resigned from the company over matters of principle in 1990. Mr. Clurman also writes — wrongly — that I was fired. If, as he reports erroneously, I had been fired and had signed the editors’ contract, then I would have received three years’ salary, bonus and benefits, and I wouldn’t be sitting in New York reading book reviews. I’d be sitting, speechless, on a beach somewhere.

I may have been an idiot but I was a principled idiot. Even then, I was obnoxious on the subject of transparency and journalism.

  • http://Alreadyoutthere R Rainey

    The more you read about these kinds of incidents, the more you realize that newsrooms, ironically, are about as far from free expression as can be. They have been all about tightly controlled information flow – reported properly and by the right beat reporters, competing for choice assignments, pored over carefully by a number of editors and ultimately greenlighted or spiked – its almost benign censorship. It is the very opposite of free flowing expression. Its no wonder that reporters and newspaper people generally take such a cavalier approach to curtailment of speech (other than their own, of course) without realizing it.