The curious case of Simon Barnes’s departure from The Times

Simon Barnes is a very good writer.  I was at an event, organised by the excellent World Land Trust, where I saw Simon last week. Although I have met him a few times before, I don’t know him well, but I plucked up the courage to go and talk to the great man and we had a short and pleasant conversation – mostly about birds.

I was very surprised though, on Saturday, to see a big write up of the Hen Harrier issue in Simon’s column although, as I wrote here then, I wondered whether such a forthright piece on raptor persecution would go down well with some of the readers of the paper of the establishment.

For The Times is still the establishment newspaper even in the Murdoch days. I remember, as a schoolboy, sometimes buying The Times because I thought it might make me look intelligent – that didn’t work and I don’t bother now.

But I do read other people’s copies of The Times (in libraries, free copies in hotels, discarded on trains etc) and Simon Barnes’s writing has always been something I have enjoyed.  How lucky I have been that Barnes writes about sport and nature – what could be better? You may know his nature writing through journalism, Birds (oops – Natures Home) magazine and several books (here is one reviewed on this blog) but do you share my love of his sports writing too?

I remember a marvellous piece he wrote about Desert Orchid around the time when the mighty grey won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1989, and I sneaked into the bookmakers in Sandy to watch the race and backed Dessie at 7/2 (when SP was 5/2 – value!) for a big stake of £10. Watch the end of the race again here just for the thrill of it – Dessie has done it!

But this week I heard that Simon Barnes had been made redundant from The Times – their Chief Sportswriter and brilliant nature writer. Why?

I did wonder whether Simon’s stand against illegal persecution of raptors over the years might have upset some people, and I notice on Twitter, and elsewhere, that others wondered the same.  If you are a criminal (if you instruct your gamekeepers to kill protected wildlife on your grouse moor) then the last thing you want is to read about your crimes in your favourite newspaper over breakfast. If you are rich and powerful and have contacts you might be inclined to ‘have a word’.  Far-fetched?  I thought I’d contact Simon to see.

This is what he e-mailed me (probably from Wimbledon!) and he said that it was on the record:

I wondered about that myself, but I have no idea how these things are decided. Their line to me was that they were selling their top striker because they could no longer afford his wages. I was pretty shocked, though I was aware that a decent salary makes you vulnerable. I’ve been writing for The Times since 1982, and and I’m sorry it had to end like this. I’ve been able to work on some great stories — elephant corridors in India and London 2012, the Peak District and Wimbledon 2013. I’m making rather a point of not looking backwards right now, so I’m trying not to speculate on why I left.‘.

So, there you go: the very curious case of Simon Barnes’s departure from The Times.

Do you buy the cost-cutting story?  I don’t.  You don’t sell your top striker when he is banging in the goals and on top form, and you don’t give him away, so he can play for other teams, either.

The Guardian seems to have a rather unbalanced team at the moment – lots of play down the left wing of climate change but not much straight-down-the-middle wildlife-writing.

Here are some of Simon’s columns mentioning Hen Harriers:

Last Saturday – Some of our grouses are beginning to be heard

12 May 2012 – Hen Harrier extinction looks bad on the old CV

19 May 2014 – Take your partner for the great sky dance

14 December 2013  – Saving the Hen harrier is a serious business

24 August 2013 – That thing kills all my grouse.  It’s got to go

12 April 2014 – We’re going to watch gamekeepers  like a hawk

I wish Simon well in the future – he is surely too talented a writer to be out of a job for long. I’ll buy him a meal in London some time if we can get together – on me. We all owe him a lot.


66 Replies to “The curious case of Simon Barnes’s departure from The Times”

  1. What a shame. This is the 1st I’ve heard about Simon’s departure from the Times, I’ve admired his writing for a long time, both sports and wildlife, he has a very engaging tone to his style. If it’s correct about being ‘let go’ because of his views on raptor persecution then shame on the Times. I would’ve thought such an august organ would be above such obvious actions. I hope sincerely that he gains re-employment swiftly with a company that appreciates his undoubted talent swiftly.

    1. I remember an Irish ecologist who wrote articles on wildlife and land management for the Irish Press. The farmers did not like this and he lost his job!! If Simon obtains another position with a newspaper I shall stop buying the Times and transfer allegiance. Simon has asked for Defra to prosecute for illegal persecution of raptors, this is hardly likely as they completely ignore land owners compliance of legal agreements for European subsidy payments. Good job I am not a journalist??

    2. Thank you for your words relating to Simon Barnes, who works tirelessly for wildlife and The Times have made a grave error in losing such a remarkable writer. I would not be surprised if pressure has been applied because of the publicity relating to the persecution of raptors. I too will miss his column, but what can I do?

  2. This is the first I have heard of Simon’s departure too. I read his column every week although last week I didn’t as I had 170 teenagers to take care of – long story! I will await further news of the reasons for his departure and will no longer buy the Times if it is because of his views. I do hope the Guardian is able to make room for him.

  3. Surely a journalist wouldn’t be sacked on the grounds that they wrote an article or three on a controversial subject? All journalists would be out of a job.

    Its a shame that he has left and there is no longer a reason to buy the Times.

    I hope I get to see his excellent articles in the Guardian and Independent.


  4. Mark, this is not the first time a talented journalist lost his job for highlighting the plight of raptors on Red Grouse moors, and I must say if the establishment have their way it will not be the last.

    Two decades ago my work protecting raptors in the Forest of Bowland was featured in a TV documentary titled ‘The Silence of the hills’. The film contained an interesting interview between the documentary producer and his Grace the Duke of Westminster. The Duke was asked a number of searching questions about the persecution of birds of prey, including one question where the producer asked the Duke to explain the disappearance of raptors from his own estates in Bowland and had anyone been prosecuted for these offences. I recall asking the producer at the time was he concerned about the possibility of losing his job at the BBC because his film would undoubtedly upset many estate owners in Bowland.

    Although the film won a major TV award, the BBC chose to transmit the programme at some unearthly hour before 8 am on a Sunday morning. More to the point, within a few months after the documentary had been televised the BBC producer departed from the company following some kind of issue with the films transmission date after many years working for the company.

    Thankfully the producer subsequently established his own public relations company training others to work in media broadcasting.

  5. I can buy the idea he’s been sacked for costing too much – that’s the modern business of destructive accountancy.

    However, if it had anything to do with Hen Harriers, once again the shooting establishment have put another round into their foot (have they got any left I wonder ?) because I hope this means we’ll be hearing much more from Simon, all over the place, on birds – and especially raptor persecution – and a communicator of his quality and standing out on the loose is probably the last thing the establishment need.

    And, of course he won’t have to waste time on boring old sport !

  6. His attack last week on the International Football Federation(FIFA) and Quatar and all the corruption in sport could equally have applied to Murdoch and all greedy corporate bosses and the dodgy politicians that help their empire building.The backroom deals are threatening the fabric of life as we know it, and the natural world we love; Simon would have a much freer hand to write about all this at the Guardian.

  7. Ditto – didn’t know about this underhand redundancy. The conspiracy theory COULD be just that, a theory. Either way, the Times are daft to dump such a talented writer.

    To be specific, his rare talent was that of drawing in a reader who didn’t even realise he cared about the issue, until Simon’s way of expressing himself works its charm and even magic.

    If there’s any sense in this world, this is a dream opportunity for a more sensible paper to grab him.

  8. E petition any one! Why ruin a paper just to kick him out. We need all papers to cover the real stories not a made up heap of crap most journalists get away with writing.

  9. I agree with Richard on this one, I am not sure it makes sense that Simon has been given the boot for being controversial. Even the broadsheets thrive on creating controversy and there are enough writers such as Robin Page who happily give out the alternative message to what Simon writes. At the same time, I do not buy the selling the top striker idea either but it may be interesting to see what direction The Times takes with conservation generally in the near future. I suspect some massive realignment of political ideas in the next 12 months and I would not be surprised to see all the newspapers taking unexpected direction changes.

  10. It is very sad. There are few who have successfully combined writing about sport and wildlife. They rarely go together much and it is a delight when they do. As someone who appreciates both ( and not just the ducks that I was dismissed for in my cricketing days) I will miss him. Conspiracy theories however- I think not. More likely a combination of the bean counters and some ‘new broom’ on the management side wanting change.

    1. Picture have read Simon Barnes whenever I was at Wimbledon. As an American I has read his columns on sport and just love his wit in articles on tennis. The Times is so stuffy and now I will try to get his columns on line again and catch up.
      For the price they charge on line. It seems they should “bite the bullet” and let Simon write about his birds and tennis or anything else he wishes to say.
      I am glad I happened to delve in and try again to read his columns. Cheers

  11. Very sad indeed. His book Flying in the Face of Nature is one of my all time favourites. I can just about believe the cost cutting argument – dafter things have been done before and there has been plenty of time to take action earlier if his stance is too controversial. He is a fine writer in multiple genres and I hope he resurfaces soon.

  12. Correlation is not causation! Whichever side of the debate you’re on, wildlife conservation and/or shooting is a small minority issue that would be highly unlikely to hold any sway at a corporate or strategic level in the running of a newspaper – now, your chief sports writer pissing off FIFA on the other hand…

  13. Sorry, don’t buy the idea that upsetting FIFA could cost you your job. It must be the keepers wot did it.

  14. I must admit that like Mark I don’t and never have bought the Times although I have occasionally read it Mainly for Simon Barnes (Sport and all Roderick!) andam sad to see him go, hopefully it will another papers gain, personnally I hope the Guardian. The reasons for his departure I have no idea but it could be his stance on persecution, stranger things have happened before as Terry Pickford points out. Westminster , his grace? I think not just another aristo with too much money and too much spare time so he spends it shooting, get a life !

  15. Mark, one more relevant interesting feature following the BBC’s producers departure. If anyone thinks that politics is not at play when it comes to protecting ‘protected’ raptors in this country on Red Grouse moors they must think again.

    Shortly after the BBC producer’s demise an influential Bowland estate owner is reported to have secured a private audience at the House of Commons with Michael Hesaltine when he was the Minister for the Environment. So the story goes the estate owner demanded that licenses to monitor breeding raptors on his estate in the Forest of Bowland were revoked from all members of the local raptor group forthwith. The following season English Nature’s predecessor enclosed a clause in all licences excluding their use on this single estate.

    Significantly in 2010 Natural England with-held all licences held by the North West Raptor Protection Group for use in the whole of Lancashire’s Forest of Bowland. In 2009 there were approx 18 productive peregrine nests throughout this moorland region, which fledged if my memory is correct, at least 22 young. Last year and once again this year only a single peregrine chick successfully fledged within the AONB in each year.

    How can anyone claim such a huge population crash was the result of poor weather or lack of food, its down to pure politics, peregrines are thriving just a mile out side Bowland’s AONB boundary.

    I would urge your readers to take a minute to read the attached story to understand how the police (mostly if not all shooters) have assisted estates by harassing raptor workers in the Forest of Bowland to make it difficult to monitor nesting sites.

    1. “an influential Bowland estate owner is reported to have secured a private audience at the House of Commons with Michael Hesaltine when he was the Minister for the Environment.”

      Eh, 1992 ?

  16. I’m inclined to accept the idea Simon Barnes departure from The Times is more to do with bean counting and The Times wishing to reinvigorate its sports coverage, than it is to do with his views on raptor persecution.

    As a nature writer Simon Barnes is outstanding, unquestionably one of my favourites. I absolutely loved ‘How to be a Bad Watcher’, I also gave a copy to my late father who despite being seriously ill, laughed out loud whilst reading it – for that alone he will always have my eternal gratitude. For many years I had an article he wrote on cormorants and angling pinned to my office wall, it left a real impression on me and played a big role in challenging my then unreconstructed views on the subject.

    I know these things are subjective but I just don’t think Simon Barnes is as good writing about sport as he is about nature. Don’t get me wrong he’s still bloody good, his description of the Australian Cricket team as – ‘a succession of grim, unshaven jaws, chewing gum as if it were the flesh of an enemy’ is utterly magnificent but imho he’s not in the same league as contemporaries such as James Lawton or Hugh McIlvanney. Although to be fair, few are, so perhaps the comparison is unfair.

    It must be said that he also appears to have a preference for certain sports, for example tennis & horse-racing, over football. I suspect it wasn’t ideal for The Times to have their highly paid Chief Sports Writer opting to stay in the UK and cover Wimbledon whilst the ‘people’s game’ (not least the British national sport) takes place in Brazil of all places. He also makes no effort to hide the fact he detests golf which is also unlikely to enamour him to a fair proportion of The Times readership.

    I find the notion that he was sacked because of the article he wrote about FIFA more than a little bizarre, particularly in light of the fact that The Sunday Times, commissioned and then broke a major investigative story on the 1st June regarding the alleged corruption surrounding FIFA’s decision to award the 2022 world cup to Qatar.

  17. OK, I admit it: it must be my fault. Just a couple of weeks ago I completed a survey for Times subscribers and one question was ‘who is your favourite writer’, to which I answered ‘Simon Barnes’.

  18. Surely people realise that conspiracy theories are in fact manufactured by a top secret government department in order to distract us from what is REALLY going on.

  19. In reply to Mark Hamblett’s request for a copy of the film. I may still have a copy on VHS but I have moved house now several times and almost forget about the film until today. However, there is one problem, before the film can be republished I am sure permission must first be obtained from the BBC in Manchester.

  20. What a sad loss. I have know Simon for years, although have been out of touch of late. His writing has always been pitch perfect … Entertaining yet punchy. The Times’s loss will surely be someone else’s gain!!

    1. You nailed it. He writes a column on sports like Neil Simon writes a play. He he brilliant. His play on words are so different than any of our American writers. He will be missed. Hope he will continue some place soon.

  21. Definitely Simon’s page in ‘Nature’s Home’ is the bit I look forward to most. Like you I used to read the Times when I found one on the train or when I worked somewhere that had it. As you have to subscribe to the Times I don’t look on-line, and I would hate to buy anything from Murdoch anyway.

    So I hope the Guardian or Independent will snap him up.

  22. I was under the impression that it was the post that was made redundant, not the incumbent. This ought to mean that the Times will henceforth appear without sports or nature columns for several months. But it won’t, of course.

  23. a terrible loss for The Times. His multi-disciplinary talents of producing excellent writing on sports and nature are truly unique

  24. If Simon Barnes is no longer able to provide regular Saturday reminders to the “establishment” of the criminal and environmentally damaging practises carried out in support of driven grouse shooting, who will? Someone needs to take up the cudgels very publicly. I am sure bear-baiting must have had some wealthy and aristocratic supporters once. A real ground-swell of hostile public opinion could persuade politicians to put an end to this anachronistic and rather unpleasant “sport”.

  25. I always enjoy reading Simon’s articles, so one less publication to buy until he gets signed up by another newspaper.
    With all this skulduggery at the BBC, the Government, upland owners and now The Times, one has the makings of a good 3rd book?

  26. Surely the editors would chop anything that they didn’t like before publication? Or were ‘they’ using this very talented writer to gauge public opinion amongst Times readers? The Times’ loss will hopefully be a massive gain for a more insightful paper …or lead to the publication of more quality books.

  27. Well, there seems to be a diversity of views on the cause. Myself, I am no conspiracy theorist, but “the establishment” does close ranks and I’m not persuaded it has not in this case. Anyway, if there is doubt amongst reasonable people, should the Editor of the Times not be asked to clarify matters with a public statement on illegal killing of hen harriers on grouse moors? Mark?

  28. He is definitely my favourite writer in The Times, which I do subscribe to at weekends for the crossword – and Simon’s column! Also a very friendly and charming man, who is always happy to champion the work of smaller organisations and is particularly fond of good invertebrate stories. My 91-year-old mother reads his column avidly and often rings me up to check I’ve read it too.
    Who does that leave on the science/nature front at the Times? Matt Ridley…. Oh, dear!

  29. Gutted by the news. I shall miss him so much.

    If he moves to another paper – let us know!

  30. It doesn’t need to be precisely a conspiracy in order to be seriously dangerous to proper reporting of environmental issues. If The Times “lets go” its most talented writers it creates an ideal opportunity for organisations like the Countryside Alliance to place articles written by their paid PR staff and have them reported as news or comment without any fact checking.

    If you think this is fanciful, go to the Times site and search for “RSPCA” to see a string of stories designed to create a false impression. The same thing could easily be done to the RSPB – articles featuring old ladies finding injured birds and not being given any help, the CEO’s salary, predator control on reserves etc.

  31. I think some of these comments are a little over-the-top. Simon Barnes hasn’t died. It isn’t a “very sad loss” unless you are so addicted to The Times that you aren’t prepared to buy another paper.
    The conspiracy theories about why he was sacked (i.e Mark A’s suggestions about grouse shooting) don’t stand up. If they were true he would have been sacked a very long time ago. Newspapers everywhere are losing money, losing readers, and losing their expensive journos to try to save money. Just look who’s been sacked from the Torygraph lately. Having been at The Times for 30+ years I think we can say Simon had a good run and that he was allowed to be very influential by very many editors. But it’s just possible it was time for a change, and that’s no bad thing sometimes.
    He’s a good writer, and I look forward to reading him elsewhere, but he isn’t the only elegant writer banging the drum for conservation out there.

    1. Subbuteo – thanks for your comment. Who would be your top 5 elegant writers banging the drum for conservation in national newspapers then please?

      1. only three leap to mind in the national press – Charles Clover, Richard Girling (both in the Murdoch Sunday Times stable), and George Monbiot. I think these guys write very elegantly and forcefully. Geoffrey Lean is also a good read in the Telegraph, though am not sure he has such a strong ‘voice’ as the others. Robin Page, also sometime Telegraph contributor, would probably object to being accused of elegance (and he’d be right!) but he’s a rare beast – he’s actually doing it, not just writing about it. That’s four. I didn’t specifically refer to the NATIONAL press though, so can I nominate anyone who writes for British Wildlife magazine as my fifth? I should of course be nominating Mark Avery, but that goes without saying…

        But if your point is that there are not enough writers out there (elegant or otherwise) writing about conservation in high profile places then I totally agree with you. What we do have a lot of are informed, intelligent writers whose areas of expertise allow them to touch on aspects of conservation and who are often given space in the national press (e.g. Clive Aslet, Germaine Greer, Harry Mount, Sarah Raven, Adam Nicholson, Anna Pavord etc. etc.)

    2. No writer can duplicate his critique of his journalistic skills in sports. I wish he would write for The New York Times! I live in New York.
      I think he should come to the U.S OPEN and write a few articles.

  32. I am glad I saw this. Now I could stop hounding the London times telling them I have no other e mail and send me your paper on line.. Now another fortnight has passed. Simon Barnes will tell his story and we can all smile at his spin on everything.

  33. I have maintained my Times subscription largely because of a shared twin interest in sport and biding. Indeed my Saturday does not start until I have read Simon’s column and Feather Report(DM). I shall see where Simon comes to roost and review my Times subscription.

  34. If Simon’s employers were bothered about any of his truth revealing and sincere articles on important topics surely the editor has the ultimate power to block or change them to please those readers in important places. The Times will be very much poorer without Simon Barnes and they may pay a heavy price for their decision even though one individual is never bigger than the total sum of its parts.

    I always thought you held onto gold even when its value fluctuates occasionally.

    I will be reviewing my lengthy patronage to The Times to assess whether my loyalty will continue!!

  35. I have loved Simon’s sports and bird articles for many years. I will switch to whatever paper he writes for in future. I’m sure that it was the grouse and Hen Harrier business that upset someone judging by the well-informed ornithological grapevine. Simon Barnes and Mark Avery on the case – now that would be both barrels!

  36. Having been a Times reader for longer than I can remember, I’ve been finding less and less in the paper to interest me over the past few months, and decided that if Simon Barnes (my favourite writer) left, so would I. Having read his ‘last but one article’ on 26 July, I did some searching and found out about his ‘redundancy’. I was devastated! I immediately sent an email to cancel my subscription, wrote a letter enclosing my vouchers and membership card (never used it!), and cancelled my direct debit. I don’t want to buy/read a paper that can do such a thing. I’m sure Mr Barnes will not be jobless for long, as he is such a brilliant writer.

  37. Simon Barnes ‘ column has been replaced by the Chief Executive of the Peak National Park . It appears to be that the Times has bowed to pressure.It should never confuse wildlife conservation and shooting They should at least tell us who Jim Dixon is.

  38. Without Simon Barnes ‘s articles to read [how i looked forward to them every Saturday] The Times will not be brought my me , .Where will Simon Barnes write his columns next ??? Hopefully it will not be long before I know

  39. I have bought ‘The Times’ for many, many years and will continue to do so. However, Simon Barnes’ columns, in particular his dedicated, unrelenting pieces on Derby’s Pride Park stupidity and the horrendous persecution of the Peak District raptors was captivating, compulsive reading for me and was testimony to his heroic stance on these very important issues. I will miss his input greatly and would love the opportunity to thank him for consistently highlighting other important issues such as loss of wildlife habitat, the slaughter of migrating birds over the Mediterranean and much, much more in such a simplistic fashion. I always shuddered inwardly when I read his thoughts about the way in which these negative issues would ultimately affect the planet’s ecology. I will miss him greatly and hope he’ll ‘reappear’ in some way so that I can be captivated by his writing style once again. Gordon Kitching

  40. Naively, I’ve been waiting for Simon Barnes to return from a well deserved summer vacation. After realising the vacation was taking too long, I Googled him. I feel so sorry for the Murdoch empire if they can’t afford their “star striker”. One can only assume the empire is crumbling or just bloody stupid. Bye bye “The Times”, I’m off to greener pastures where Simon will be.

  41. How very interesting. I thought Simon B must have gone on a long trip to Botswana or something like that, but his continuing absence started to worry me so I googled a query and found your comments. Well I shan’t be getting my Saturday Times any more either. He was a star, a voice in the wilderness, and should have been promoted to editor rather than sacked.

  42. I was also under the impression that Simon was on a summer break and would be returning in the Autumn, so I am deeply saddened by the news of his departure. I will miss his weekly nature article and I always look forward to his Wimbledon birding list every June. I will not be purchasing The Times from now on.

  43. Like several of other commenters I have been looking for the return of Simon’s Saturday nature column. He fas long been a hero an I often hope to meet him at one of the Rspb reserves. I am gutted, I am tempted to cancell my subscription to the Times in protest.

  44. Being a British freelance Nature Photographer and naturalist for many years I was always captivated by Simons mastery of the English language, it reminded me of another nature writer Eric Hardy since departed. When I heard about Simons departure I complained to the editor of the Times he did not have the decency reply in letters to the editor. There is an old saying ” Money Talks ” shame on you, we know who you our. On a more positive note the RSPB have started a long term initiative in Derbyshire to bring back the Hen Harriers using surveillance equipment e.t.c to the gamekeepers and landowners ‘ Your Time Is Up ”

    Ps If anybody knows if Simon is writing his nature articles please let me and I will buy
    the paper every week

    PPs ” Cream Always Comes To The Top ”

    Ken Lewis

  45. So many comments and almost as many reasons for his departure. I confess that after a week or two I wondered whether he had been taken ill unexpectedly and that a reason would be puiblished in the Times in due course.
    I emailed the paper and asked what had happened and why. No reply.

    Being quick on the uptake, I googled his name and “voila” got all the comments.
    I find it impossible to believe that he has been fired in order to make way for a so-called fresher look after so many successful years with the paper.
    There just has to be an agenda which in time will be exposed. Until he re-surfaces elsewhere I may have to put up with the Times but have to admit, like most others, that the gloss has gone.

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