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Whatever the buzz, the Times is stuck in a groove

Whatever the buzz, the Times is stuck in a groove

26 October 2002

12:00 AM

26 October 2002

12:00 AM

My colleague Stuart Reid has been urging me to write about the Times for weeks. ‘There’s a buzz on the streets,’ he says. ‘Oh, yeah?’ ‘Yes, people are saying that the Times is improving under its new editor.’ ‘Really?’ ‘Yes, that is the word. The Times is getting better. Not much, but a little. It’s getting more serious. That is what they say.’

Are they right? Unlike Stuart, I haven’t met many of these people. I haven’t heard the buzz. But it is time we considered the question. For there is no doubt that Robert Thomson, who has been editor of the Times for nearly eight months, wants to take it upmarket. He has even told a couple of friends of mine that Rupert Murdoch, the paper’s proprietor, shares his dream. Perhaps in the twilight of his days Mr Murdoch hopes to be remembered not for all the dumbing down he has achieved, but for a little belated dumbing up. Mr Thomson has been allowed to open a couple of new foreign bureaux.

There are, of course, many upmarket aspects to the Times. There is Simon Jenkins and William Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove and Anatole Kaletsky and Matthew Parris and the rest of the gang. There are the leading articles and the letters. The foreign pages are not bad. The business pages are scarcely downmarket. But all this was the case under the editorship of Peter Stothard, who has now moved on to edit the TLS. (That is another story, which I am following carefully.) My old friend created a hybrid paper which played both sides of the wicket. The old Times readers were supposed to be kept happy by the more elevated features I have mentioned, while the new readers, who flocked to the paper after it slashed its price in 1993, were offered more downmarket fare.

If anyone doubts the transformation that has taken place over the past decade, let me produce some incontrovertible evidence. Down at the Bodleian Library I compared the Times’s coverage in a week at the beginning of this year (before my old friend tossed in the towel) with a corresponding week a decade ago. Dear reader, you would not believe it. Ten years ago there was much more text on the news pages, and photographs occupied about half the space they do today. There were no celebrities, and I mean no celebrities. In the corresponding week in 2002 the following celebrities appeared with their photographs on the early news pages: Victoria Beckham, Julia Roberts, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Michael Jackson, Sinead Cusack, Delia Smith, Farrah Fawcett Major, Robbie Williams…. I could go on but I haven’t got the space. Whereas in the week ten years ago there were few, if any, stories about animals, in the corresponding week in 2002 there was a picture of a jaguar being taken for a walk on a lead, a koala, a sheep, piglets, a springer spaniel, a warthog and Mike Tyson – all on the news pages.


Has much changed since Mr Thomson took over? Despite the buzz, I don’t think so. The way in which the Times serialised the Edwina Currie diaries did nothing to restore its reputation as a respectable title. Picking up Tuesday’s paper at random, I read this above the masthead: ‘Sex, lies and adoption – Jackie Collins, Page 20’. I look at Monday’s paper and see in the same place two footballers and a sexpot in a gold dress. Probably Mr Thomson’s home news pages carry slightly longer articles on more serious subjects than was the case during my old friend’s editorship, but there are still lots of photographs of celebrities and women with few clothes on, as well as the occasional furry beast.

Without doubt the Daily Telegraph, the Independent and, to a lesser extent, the Guardian have all followed the Times downmarket over the past ten years. Some people will say this reflects a general dumbing down of society and, in a week during which a survey suggested that only 8 per cent of women can name five world leaders, it is difficult to gainsay this. (Though which came first, the chicken or the egg?) But I absolutely refuse to believe that all Times readers are happy with what they are being offered. In fact I am certain that a substantial minority of them, though enjoying the more serious features I have mentioned, are sick of koala bears and footballers on the news pages, and could even get by with fewer half-dressed women.

But however much Mr Thomson would like to take his paper upmarket, there is virtually nothing he can do. Neither could anyone else. He has inherited an uneasy coalition of readers from my old friend – those who valued the old Times and those who came to the paper after the price cut. If he takes the paper too far upmarket – i.e., if he makes it too much like the pre-1993 Times – he will lose circulation and his job. Robert Thomson is literally stuck where he is, and the most you can hope for is a gentle touch on the tiller.

It would be wonderful to live in a country where Ulrika Jonsson only read the weather. That is how she started out. Then she graduated into game shows and moved into Sven-Goran Eriksson’s life and – bingo! – we have a book and a serialisation in the Daily Mail which supposedly cost hundreds of thousands of pounds. I can’t say I managed to read a single word of it, but those who did assure me that Ulrika did not come across with the goods. That is to say, she failed to describe how Sven was a six-times-a-night man who performed in a Swedish strip. Too bad. But Ulrika did let slip that she had been ‘date-raped’ 14 years ago when she was a naive and vulnerable young thing (ha, ha) not long arrived in England, although the Mail did not include this revelation in its serialisation. When it became public knowledge, even I woke up.

There is not a journalist alive who does not know the name of her alleged attacker. I thought of identifying him but …well, it seemed wrong. Let it be said that he is not quite the household name he is cracked up to be, at any rate not in my household. Ulrika has done a bad thing by exposing him in this way, and the papers have hardly distinguished themselves. If she really was raped, she should have reported it to the police. If she was too innocent to do so, she was at liberty during the succeeding years to make a complaint to the police when she became a little less innocent. But to convict him in this way is to ruin him, which is presumably what she intends to do. The Daily Express ludicrously suggests that he give himself up so that he can clear his name. (In other words, be torn limb from limb by the tabloids.) The Daily Mail produces three women who have received ‘savage treatment’ at the hands of this man who, the paper informs us, has ‘a marked attachment to sexual degeneracy and violence’. The loathsome publicist Max Clifford is inevitably involved, talking to the alleged rapist and two of his supposed victims.

It can only be a matter of time before the man is identified. Indeed, his name has already obliquely appeared in some newspapers. What an appalling story this is. Once it was customary to go to the police, not the tabloids. But that, of course, does not sell books, or make you even more famous.


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