Now for what it says in the papers . . . and other media

Broadcasters shouldn’t axe their newspaper review slots, but they should rethink them

Apologists for terror: one of the Daily Mail’s three-word headlines for the ages

Apologists for terror: one of the Daily Mail’s three-word headlines for the ages

 

“Stop buying the Daily Mail,” Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell implored the audience of the BBC’s postelection Question Time. Campbell was sitting next to Isabel Oakeshott, the Daily Mail writer, who had deemed a pop at her employer so predictable that she declared she had been “timing” his first one.

“I don’t know why we have to bang on about the Daily Mail all the time,” David Dimbleby, the programme’s presenter, replied.

Indeed, there are some who think the Mail should be deprived of the oxygen of attention. An argument is afloat that as Jeremy Corbyn did remarkably better than expected in the UK general election, and Theresa May humiliatingly worse, neither the Mail nor the Sun is quite the blustering influence it clearly feels entitled to be, and therefore shouldn’t be taken so seriously.

“Can we all agree that What the Papers Say should now be jettisoned as an anachronistic relic,” the historian Dan Snow tweeted.

Technically, What the Papers Say is already history. The press-analysis programme was axed from television in 2008 and from radio last year. What Snow was presumably referring to was the daily reviews of front pages that fill airtime entertainingly and cheaply.

But since Thursday even people who write for newspapers are questioning whether paper reviews are worth it, while veteran journalists such as John Simpson of the BBC say they suspect they have “seen the end of the tabloids as arbiters of UK politics”.

To recap: the Daily Mail, edited in Britain by Paul Dacre, has been in especially venomous form since the so-called people’s Brexit, doubling down on an obnoxious and preposterous stance in which it doubts the patriotism of pretty much anyone outside its office (which is in the now Labour-held constituency of Kensington).

Here’s a hat-trick of three-word headlines for the ages: “Enemies of the people” (judges), “Crush the saboteurs” (anyone daring to thwart Queen Theresa) and “Apologists for terror” (Corbyn and his Labour colleagues ).

For splashes that are truly iconic, in the worst sense of that word, it has been outdone only by the Sun, with its “Don’t chuck Britain in the Cor-bin” effort, a mirthless trash can of ridicule that somehow managed to be lamer than the lamest social-media meme.

The patronage of the Daily Mail (the second-biggest UK paid title by circulation) and the Sun (the biggest) is embedded in British political culture.

As long as this often pernicious relationship between the press establishment and Westminster continues – possibly until they go down together – other journalists and commentators will feel obliged to bang on about the Mail and the Sun, no matter how tedious or predictable this may be.

The lengthy paper-review slots on the BBC’s news channel and Sky News are not in themselves evidence that elements of the press are dictating the news agenda. A good paper review will serve as an independent and necessary dissection of media power rather than the means of promoting the partisan press.

Ignoring screechy newspapers will do as much to improve media literacy as trying to ignore trolls will solve the problem of online abuse.

But while reviews of news coverage are more vital than ever, there’s no reason why they should continue to be confined to print.

Certainly, the editor of the Ireland edition of the London Times, Richie Oakley, did not think they should be when he campaigned, unsuccessfully, for his digital-only edition to be included in Morning Ireland’s paper review, on RTÉ Radio 1. RTÉ held out, but it now mentions the Times’s new print edition in the slot. Over time the reason for the digital edition’s exclusion would only have become harder to justify.

In the UK the Sun and the Daily Mail have lost roughly a third of their daily print circulations since 1997 and now sell 1.6 million and 1.45 million copies respectively. Facebook has about 32 million daily users in that market. Little wonder that Labour didn’t repeat its mistake of 2015, when it spent almost nothing on paid Facebook advertising.

One Sun contributor who, in his own special way, called the UK election was the controversial conservative Rod Liddle. “The big problem today, of course, is how to stop our kids voting,” he wrote, with uncanny accuracy, in an election-day piece gleefully based on the assumption that Sun readers are old enough to have children of voting age.

Broadcasters must make a brutal assessment of their own relevancy. If they are privileging the traditional press at the expense of the online (often online-only) media brands favoured by younger audiences (and voters), then they will need to have a good reason why.

To put it another way, it’s not that paper-review slots are an anachronistic relic; it’s that the papers themselves are at risk of becoming so. You don’t need a studio of surprised political pundits to work that out.