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Sad truth about Daily Mirror readers: they like it dumb

24 August 2002

12:00 AM

24 August 2002

12:00 AM

In April the Daily Mirror relaunched itself as a more serious newspaper. Its editor, Piers Morgan, got rid of its red masthead. He hired supposedly upmarket writers such as John Pilger and Christopher Hitchens, and resurrected the famous Cassandra column. Mr Morgan invoked the name of Hugh Cudlipp, who edited the Daily Mirror in the 1950s, when it offered more serious journalism to the working classes and sold more than four million copies a day. His changes were widely welcomed, particularly by pundits in the broadsheet press who know rather little about Hugh Cudlipp or red-top tabloids. Even this column wished him well.

Four months on, Mr Morgan’s experiment seems to have failed. He has spent a considerable portion of the £20 million given to him on a futile price war with the Sun. At 2.09 million copies a day in July, the Daily Mirror’s circulation was down by nearly 6 per cent over 12 months. Its sales in August are believed to be even weaker. Meanwhile the Sun has increased month by month to 3.6 million copies, and is slightly ahead of where it was this time last year. More spectacularly, Richard Desmond’s Daily Star, which has considerably increased its already generous quotient of ‘tit ‘n’ bum’, has soared by over 15 per cent year-on-year to 736,088 copies a day.

The Daily Mirror has been losing sales since 1970. Between September 1995, when Mr Morgan became editor, and last April its circulation had declined by some 400,000 copies. But the decline has accelerated since Mr Morgan emerged triumphant from his laboratory four months ago. Its seems that the Daily Mirror’s readers do not all like the new emphasis on serious journalism and the paper’s less reverential treatment of celebrities. Of course, it is easy to exaggerate these changes, and on many days – for example, in its coverage of the disappearance of the two girls in Soham – the Daily Mirror doesn’t seem very different. But insofar as it has gone upmarket, it would seem that its readers are not jumping with joy.

What does the apparent failure of Mr Morgan’s experiment tell us? At the very least it suggests that dramatic changes to a newspaper’s content are risky. The readers of the Daily Mirror were not crying out for more serious journalism. Mr Morgan had an urge to go upmarket which seems to have been brought on by the events of 11 September. He had grown impatient with the celebrity-driven journalism on which he had cut his teeth. So in effect he appealed over the heads of his readers to the broadsheet pundits, who naturally welcomed the changes and applauded the return to the heyday of Hugh Cudlipp, in front of whose name journalists will always genuflect even though they know nothing at all about him.


But the readers of the Daily Mirror do not even pretend to know about Cudlipp. His paper is as far from their concerns as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Surely the difficulties of Mr Morgan’s more upmarket Daily Mirror, the comparative success of the Sun and the resurgence of the tit ‘n’ bum Daily Star tell us something which is rather unpalatable. Most readers of red-top tabloids do not want their newspapers to be more serious. They do not want to be improved. Over the past 25 years the readership of these newspapers has declined by about a quarter. Some readers have drifted upmarket, others have stopped reading newspapers altogether. You might think that those who remain were better educated, more interested in foreign news and less obsessed with celebrity trivia than their parents and grandparents. It is not so. I don’t doubt that there are some such people reading the red-tops, but there are not enough of them to make Mr Morgan’s experiment a success.

Trinity Mirror, which owns the Daily Mirror, has some anxious shareholders, and its chairman, Sir Victor Blank, is under pressure to do something. He doesn’t appear to know an awful lot about newspapers, but the choice before him would appear to be straightforward. Either the Daily Mirror gradually and unobtrusively reverts to its old pre-April self, with Mr Morgan retained as editor. Or the reversion is more dramatic, in which case Mr Morgan may be asked to make way for someone, such as Rebekah Wade of the News of the World, whose heart is still in red-top journalism.

David Liddiment is stepping down as ITV’s director of programmes. I cannot say that over the years he has been a staple of this column, but as he departs he deserves a word of thanks. In an interview in Monday’s Guardian, Mr Liddiment said that Greg Dyke, director-general of the BBC, was ‘providing a terrible disservice to range and quality and cultural values in Britain … I really think he doesn’t understand the purpose of the BBC.’ This is no less than the truth. Mr Dyke is our chief dumber-down. He apparently thinks that the BBC’s duty is to improve its ratings at all costs while killing off decent current-affairs programmes and running its best stuff on digital channels which no one watches.

Mr Dyke responded as you would have expected. The BBC issued a petulant statement. ‘We feel rather sorry for [David Liddiment]. Having presided over the most disastrous period in ITV’s history, he’s desperate to blame anyone but himself for the channel’s failures.’ Isn’t this the lowest of the low? It would have been better if the BBC had said nothing in response to Mr Liddiment. But if it felt compelled to reply, it should have concentrated on the point he made rather than attack him for his alleged failures. All the intellectual coarseness of Mr Dyke is evident in this statement.

Mr Liddiment is an educated man who does seem to have a much better idea about the purposes of public broadcasting than Mr Dyke has. Possibly he was miscast at ITV. His critics say that his biggest mistake was to suppose that people would want to watch Premier League football early on a Saturday evening. If so, he may be forgiven. It was probably not a mistake which the football-mad Mr Dyke would have made. How odd that Mr Liddiment should end up running ITV and Mr Dyke the BBC. These two men have been in the wrong jobs.

I wish I lived in a country where two girls could not be abducted on a Sunday evening and murdered. Where broadsheet and tabloid newspapers did not day after day fill their front pages with the story even when there was no news to cover. Where people did not pretend to care more than they really do about an awful crime. Where strangers did not send flowers and burn candles in churches they never normally visit. Where the police did not themselves look shifty. Where the newspapers did not pretend that there might be laws which would have prevented the murder of these children.Where ‘experts’ did not write vacuous articles about the nature of evil. Where the lives of the accused were not so thoroughly eviscerated in the newspapers that there must be a fairly remote chance of a fair trial. And where that trial itself may never happen because the accused will be deemed by psychiatrists and defence lawyers to have been gaga.


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