It was just another Saturday in the annals of the British press: Saturday 7 January 2017.
The Daily Mail devoted the top half of its front page to a promo for a 32-page dieting magazine (‘PLUS free diet diary’) and the lower half to a boast about its latest ‘victory’:
AID: NOW THEY’RE LISTENING
This was a reference to the UK government’s decision, in the face of pressure from the Daily Mail, to withdraw funding from ‘the Ethiopian version of the Spice Girls’. A study of the facts – which must never get in the way of grotesque over-simplification – reveals a different story. The hard-pressed ‘British taxpayer’, whose interests the Mail regards as paramount, will no longer assist a project that uses music to educate and empower young women in the world’s ninth poorest country. Is the sudden pulling of the grant a triumph for middle England – or an act of mean-spirited political cowardice? You decide.
The Guardian, voice of the beleaguered liberal left, trailed ‘Soups for the soul’ and ‘Hottest places to visit this year’ above a piece on the ‘humanitarian crisis’ facing the NHS in England. An example of the Guardian’s ‘fearless journalism’ which it is currently begging its readers to sustain with donations? Only if you believe that fearless journalism comes pre-packaged in a media statement from the British Red Cross.
The Daily Telegraph also led with the latest NHS ‘crisis’. But here too the plight of hospital patients played second fiddle to a range of New Year tasters: ‘The Great Book-It List’ (50 best family holidays); ‘Breakfasts of Champions’; ‘Train smarter, not harder’; and ‘Go Dutch – the secret of parenting success’.
The Times splashed news of an ‘angry donor’ who is threatening to stop funding the Conservative party, but the extended menu took precedence: ‘He dances! He sings! He’s hot! What’s not to like about Ryan Gosling?'; ‘Eat: really fast winter meals’; ‘Great chateau holidays’; and ‘Why French women don’t do cleavage’.
At the Daily Mirror, the offer of a ‘free slimming magazine inside’ – yep, another one – left just enough room for PREHISTORIC – the headline over a non-story about the entertainer Tom Jones’s view of a female singer he rates ‘too fat for success’. But no chateau holidays; it’s the Mirror, stupid.
The Daily Express (‘The world’s greatest newspaper’...according to, er, the Daily Express) has a rota of front-page themes from which it rarely deviates: (1) Brexit Britain booming!; (2) Weather bomb on the way!; (3) Latest medical breakthrough! The short straw for Saturday drew (3) with an obscure story from America headed HOW A NAP KEEPS YOUR BRAIN YOUNG alongside ARISE, SIR NIGEL (a petition to have Farage knighted) and below the inevitable offer (an exercise DVD).
Surpassing its rivals in editorial feebleness, the Sun’s idea of the most important event of the day (under a promo for cheap holidays) was ‘loved-up Prince Harry, 32’ taking his girlfriend for a winter break to Norway. The point being? No point: that was the point.
And then there was the Daily Star – but let’s not go there.
The BBC’s news website, which carries a daily facsimile of front pages, in this way implicitly sponsoring a relentless dripfeed of right-wing propaganda, royalist trivia, sexual titillation, fatuous speculation and downright lies, had omitted to include the i. That newspaper had found a public interest story for its front page without feeling the need to bombard its readers with offers and brain-numbing teasers. But it was the exception.
Just another Saturday: yet, with an important caveat. It was the last Saturday before tomorrow’s closing date for the UK government’s public consultation on Section 40, which supposedly threatens not only the noble cause of investigative journalism but the very existence of Britain’s free press.
How many will lift a finger to save it? Come to that, how many have more than a vague understanding of what appears to be at stake? Let Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, explain:
Press freedom is, once again, hanging in the balance...Following the Leveson inquiry, the government set out a royal charter for press regulators. No newspapers signed up to it. The question the government is now considering is whether to force them to do so. The plan — called section 40, after a so-far-unused part of the 2013 Crime and Courts Act — would mean that if a libel action was brought against a newspaper, it would be forced to pay the legal costs of its opponents even if it won the case. It is not hard to see where this would lead. Rich and powerful people who had something to hide would be able to threaten newspapers into pulling stories they found inconvenient. The risk of huge legal costs would be used as a battering ram against truthful reporting.
Since Mr Nelson has raised the distasteful question of rich and powerful people, it becomes necessary to point out that his own proprietors, the Barclay brothers, who also own the Daily Telegraph, have an estimated net worth of £6.5 billion. Although the businesses of the publicity-shy twins have been accused in the past of tax avoidance, we should not expect so sensitive a matter to be investigated by the Daily Telegraph or by that standard-bearer of press freedom, the Spectator.
His estimated net worth of $12 billion makes Rupert Murdoch (Times/Sun) one of the richest and most powerful people in the world. Murdoch has nothing to hide. We have his word for that. While his journalists were routinely hacking the victims of crime, Murdoch had this much in common with wronged wives: he was the last to know.
As his newspaper stoutly defends British taxpayers in the face of unreasonable demands from the ninth poorest country in the world, the proprietor of the Daily Mail, the 4th Viscount Rothermere, with a net worth estimated at £1 billion, enjoys ‘non-domicile tax status’, a fact you are unlikely to see reported in, say, the Daily Mail.
Richard Desmond made his fortune publishing ‘adult magazines’ – he objects to the term ‘pornographic’ to describe them – such as Big Ones and Asian Babes. He has since come down in the world as proprietor of the world’s greatest newspaper (oh, and the Daily Star – but let’s not go there). From an estimated net worth of $1.3 billion, his generous bankrolling of Ukip amounts to petty cash.
Among the big boys, that leaves Trinity, publishers of the Mirror. They are under pressure to abandon a handsome payout to shareholders while the pension fund shows a shortfall of £426 million – £126 million more than the company is actually worth. Responsible governance? You won’t read much about it in the Mirror; it prefers to publish stories about fat singers.
If, having reflected on their distressing plight, your heart bleeds for the newspaper proprietors, you have until the end of today to drop a note to culture secretary Karen Bradley objecting to the disgraceful idea that these rich and powerful people should be forced to pay the legal expenses of other rich and powerful people. But if the best you can do is crawl to the defence of press freedom, as I do myself, it may be best to disregard the content of Saturday’s newspapers, turning a blind eye to their obsession with celebrity and personal consumption, their dreary insularity, their cynicism and inhumanity, their souped-up press releases, and their empty pretensions to ‘investigative journalism’.
Ignore all of that because, with a couple of honourable exceptions, it’s the same every Saturday – and every other day of the week. Section 40 may finish off the free press and hasten the end of civilisation as we know it. But how will we be able to tell the difference?