There is one person in the world whom I would love to meet. Or maybe two. I am thinking of the propagandist who writes the monthly front-page ‘brief’ in the Times extolling the paper’s circulation performance. His (or her?) counterpart on the Daily Telegraph would be interesting, too, though this person has fallen rather silent recently. The genius at the Times was at work last Saturday. The general gist was that the newspaper was inexorably closing the gap on the Telegraph. A casual reader might suppose that the newspapers are neck-and-neck in the circulation race.
This is not so. What has happened, as I suggested several weeks ago might be the case, is that the Daily Telegraph has given up the costly battle to remain above a daily sale of one million copies. It has reduced its number of foreign sales and so-called bulk copies. But so has – or had, since it happened in the summer – the Times, which has allowed itself to slip below its own psychologically important benchmark of 700,000 copies a day. In October the paper claimed an average daily sale of 687,611, while the Daily Telegraph posted a figure of 972,596. Over the past six months, in comparison with the same period last year, the circulation of the Times has declined by 2.63 per cent, while that of the Telegraph has fallen by 3.18 per cent. I would say that makes my point. There has been very little change in the relationship of the two newspapers so far as their sales are concerned. Both are down a little.
This leads me to my wider point, which is the overall decline in the circulation, and more particularly the readership, of broadsheet newspapers. (There are between 2.5 and 3 readers per copy.) Over a ten-year period readership has risen slightly as a result of the Times’s cover-price reduction in September 1993. But during the past five years there has been a decline in readership, as an analysis of figures from the authoritative National Readership Survey shows. The drop is even sharper if you look at readers in the AB socio-economic group, which is most important to broadsheet newspapers. In the period 1996 to 2001, AB readership of the Daily Telegraph declined by 9.1 per cent, while the Times fell by 6.5 per cent in the same category. The Guardian’s AB readership was down by 17.9 per cent, while that of the Independent fell by a whopping 26.5 per cent. In fact, the Independent is by far the worst casualty in terms of circulation and, more especially, of readership. This gives the lie to the widespread view that the haemorrhaging has been stemmed under the editorship of Simon Kelner. At the very best he has eased the flow.
All in all, some 450,000 AB readers deserted the broadsheet newspapers between 1996 and 2001. Where have they gone? No one knows for sure. Some may have defected to the Daily Mail, whose AB readership has risen by about half this amount over the same period, though that may include readers from other sources. Many ABs have simply fallen out of the newspaper market. It is an extraordinary fact that of the 11 million AB adults in this country about a third do not read any daily newspaper whatsoever. Actually there are significantly more ABs in the United Kingdom than there were a decade ago as a result of socio-economic changes. So a much smaller proportion of ABs are reading broadsheet newspapers than was the case five or even ten years ago. One obvious explanation is that they simply do not have the time. It is also possible (this is just a guess) that more people commute by car, and those of them who do not have their newspapers delivered at home cannot easily buy one on the way to work. Many young people in all socio-economic classes seem to have got out of the habit of reading newspapers.
Are there any other reasons for the decline in AB readership of broadsheets? I can only answer that question by asking another. What has been the most striking development among these papers over the past ten years? It is that they have all dumbed down. Of course this has happened in varying degrees. The Times has dumbed down the most because, as a consequence of its price cut, it became in some respects a new paper. Certainly none of these titles has dumbed up, though one or two of them have improved their coverage in particular respects. So we are left with the fascinating conclusion that for all their efforts at dumbing down – to be more accessible and more popular – broadsheets have been losing some of their core readers. I am just about to make a suggestion that is so far out of keeping with the spirit of the age that you had better hang on to your seat. It is that, in addition to the possible reasons I have already mentioned, some of these lost AB readers may have been driven away because of the dumbing down. There, I’ve said it. Disprove it if you can. Or find a better explanation.
Whenever I have written about Mark Bolland in the past – he remains Prince Charles’s spin doctor, though not in his sole employ – I have taken the line that the proof of the pudding must be in the eating. You may not like the look of him. You may disapprove of his alleged habit of spinning against the minor royals and Buckingham Palace. You may not think it desirable that such a man should number Rebekah Wade, editor of the News of the World, among his friends. But so long as Prince Charles rode high in the esteem of the tabloids, and so long as they fell more and more in love with Camilla Parker Bowles, it was difficult to find fault with Mark Bolland, whatever the cut of his jib.
Now Prince Charles is in the soup again. It is not Mr Bolland’s doing. Mr Bolland did not invent the butler-from-hell, Paul Burrell. Mr Bolland cannot be blamed if Prince Charles insists on asking his valet to hold his specimen bottle as he pees into it. Mr Bolland should not be held to account if Prince Charles chooses to preside over a household which (if reports are to be believed) would have made the fun-loving inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah rub their eyes in wonder. But as Mr Bolland was given the credit when his prince was bathed in sunlight, so he should assume his share of responsibility when his charge is cast by the tabloids into outer darkness.
The lesson is surely clear. A man may go on holiday with Rebekah Wade. He may be on first-name terms with every tabloid editor. He may charm gossip columnists and royal correspondents. But he cannot tame the tabloids. He may think he has but then – wham! – along comes a batch of stories which no amount of spinning can deflect. Even the News of the World has stopped calling Prince Charles a hero. If the heir to the throne is to rehabilitate himself in our full affections, my humble advice would be twofold. Get rid of every spin doctor (Mr Bolland will not starve since he has other clients on his books) and start behaving in a more normal way.