Five weeks ago, at the height of the EU referendum campaign, I wrote a letter of complaint to the Daily Telegraph. How quaint, you might think. But it took a lot for me to do this. The Saturday edition has for many years been a weekend treat, a wheelbarrow load of antidote to the prevailing liberal left culture of my public sector career.
I wasn’t complaining about the paper’s editorial slant on the EU, which was boldly for Leave.
My gripe was with the steadily diminishing space afforded for serious news and comment, replaced by fashion and lifestyle pieces, often with a smug middle-class feminist bent. The Sunday Telegraph transformed its glossy supplement many years ago into Stella, a magazine aimed entirely at the younger woman, so we are on a clear trajectory. Despite a proliferation of shallow, low-cost journalism in its plethora of supplements, the Saturday edition was still worth buying, with the wisdom of Charles Moore and other nuggets in the comment section.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was a redesigned ‘News Review and Features’ section, which comprised pieces on shoes, celebrity trivia, gowns at the Oscars and a tirade by Bryony Gordon about male midlife crisis (which ended with advice that such men should go off quietly to die). I’ll return to the folly of a business insulting its customers, but at a time of dramatic events nationally and globally, was this all that the Telegraph thought worth reviewing?
Last Saturday, I decided to give the Saturday Telegraph another chance. I wasn’t expecting my letter to have had any impact, having received a cursory e-mailed acknowledgment of my ‘feedback’, but I was saddened by the continuing demise of this once-great publication. The ‘News Review’ section could have discussed the failed Turkish coup, our new prime minister finding her feet, the Labour Party at loggerheads, Brexit negotiations or the migrant crisis in Europe. Instead, the topic of the moment was….Pippa Middleton’s dresses.
In the magazine was a potentially interesting article on Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who is standing for a region of France that has suffered badly from Islamist terror. However, this demonstrated how the Telegraph is finding difficulty in understanding the world and its current crises of confidence. Soon Donald Trump may be elected president of the USA. As you would expect, the Guardian has run scores of diatribes against the great pretender, but at least an argument is presented. The Telegraph, meanwhile, sits back on lazy parody. Having gone to the trouble of meeting the young Maréchal-Le Pen, the interviewer placed her own perspective at the forefront. One may dislike the Front National, but Maréchal-Le Pen gave reasoned answers to all of Mary Riddell’s questions. When she explained her view that Catholicism rather than Islam had a rightful place at the centre of French cultural life, Riddell squawked: –
Were such sentiments to be aired by a spittle-flecked bigot of the extreme right, most voters would condemn them as repellent. That they are recited by a beguiling young politician beloved of many constituents makes them more disturbing.
Perhaps it would have been more enlightening for Maréchal-Le Pen to interview Riddell. Although Brexit was supported by the political team, most other contributors have been mimics of the infamously disparaging Matthew Parris at The Times. The ‘bewildered middle class’, as a friend at the BBC sees them, cannot understand Leave voters as anything but backward xenophobes. Recently a Telegraph supplement warned young women on the dating scene of the awful possibility that they discover a partner has closet Ukip opinions.
As socially-conservative attitudes are harangued, it appears that Gramsci’s march through the institutions has reached the Telegraph. The wickedness of Margaret Thatcher is frequently noted in the Review section, but a regular and ubiquitous target is men. One Weekend feature told us that while women continually busy themselves on their children, home improvements or whatever, the man of the house prefers to relax and read the newspaper. I’d have thought that’s the point of the bulky package – a leisurely read after a hard week, but if I wanted to be reminded of inherent male uselessness, I would self-flagellate with the Guardian.
Death of the newspaper industry has been predicted ever since the emergence of the internet, and sales continue on a downward path. This would be a great loss, and I sincerely hope that more papers do not follow the Independent out of print. But current strategy at the Telegraph seems destined to produce this outcome. Understandably, as existing readers age and expire, Buckingham Palace Road wants to attract new custom, and younger metropolitan middle-class women are seen as a rich seam. But if they read the Telegraph at all, they do so online: I have rarely seen a woman of under 40 purchasing the paper at a station kiosk. Media should try to expand their market, but not by sacrificing the existing audience.
While websites such as The Conservative Woman are growing steadily, many people find that reading news on screen is not as engaging as the physical product (I often print articles of particular interest from this website). This is evident with books, for which the decline in sales is now reversing. Newspapers could also revive, but in a world of 24-hour news online, they must play to their strengths – offering considered commentaries on events and social trends here and abroad.
Hopefully my old friend the Telegraph can be rescued. On Saturday I compared its news output with that of the Daily Mail. The latter had substantial articles on the various topics mentioned above, amounting to double the reading time of the supposed quality broadsheet. The supplements also badly need a revamp: the Telegraph is failing to represent realities experienced by its readers, instead presenting the utopia of narcissistic writers who identify themselves as green, feminist and ethically superior. I’ve seen more common sense in The Sun.
(Image: Alan Stanton)