Polly Toynbee of the Guardian believes that the Daily Mail is responsible for most of what is wrong with this country. When she learnt that the paper was intending to hold its own referendum on the new European constitution, the streets of Clapham, where Polly has her house, began to tremble. ‘Who runs the country?’ she demanded to know in her column of 21 May. The answer was that the ‘right-wing press barons’ with their ‘raucous bullying’ want to. The Daily Mail was naturally the worst offender. Its decision to have its own plebiscite was ‘a crude usurpation’. Polly seemed to think that the paper was asking the citizens of Britain to make a judgment about ‘an as yet unformulated EU constitution’, though in fact it was merely asking them to vote on whether or not they wanted a proper referendum.
Despite Polly’s fears, there is as yet no evidence that the Daily Mail is running the country. Looking out of my window, I am glad to say that I do not see any of its executives patrolling the streets. Its polling day has come and gone with the world taking almost no notice, though the paper itself worked up a considerable head of steam. (I should remind readers that I write a column for the Mail.) Nearly 1.7 million people – slightly less than one third of the newspaper’s total readership – took part in the referendum on 12 June. Of these, 89.8 per cent were in favour of a referendum. A poll carried out by ICM for the paper of nearly 50,000 people – an enormous sample by normal polling standards – produced almost identical results.
Readers will judge for themselves the significance of these findings. Being myself a passionate supporter of a referendum, I would like to think that they are very significant. But one has to face the fact that outside the pages of the Daily Mail the results were barely noted. And, although the Mail has lots of readers, all the other titles put together have very many more. Many people do not read newspapers, and had they relied upon radio or television they would not necessarily have received a full account of the Mail’s polling day. The BBC shares many of Polly’s reservations about the Mail in general and its referendum in particular. As for the other newspapers, even the Eurosceptic ones were unable to muster any sense of solidarity with the Mail. Their highly developed competitive feelings compelled them mostly to ignore the referendum.
Indeed, these same feelings have led several publications, including this one, to grab credit for having had the idea of a referendum in the first place. The editor of this magazine is adamant that it was The Spectator which first proposed it (no doubt correctly), and yet its sister publication the Sunday Telegraph has also claimed authorship. One Independent columnist has suggested that the notion was formed in his head. The Sun has run its own telephone poll which it appears to believe has the status of a referendum. Amid this competitive babble there was no inclination among the Eurosceptic press to talk up the Mail’s own referendum in advance. The Daily Telegraph was good enough to mention it in a leader before loftily dismissing it, while the fiercely Eurosceptic Sun ignored it altogether. Though its views on Europe are similar, the Times could not bring itself to rally to the Mail’s support in a leader. Even the Mail’s sister publications, the London Evening Standard and the Mail on Sunday, failed to offer any covering fire. All journalists know that there is no competition in newspapers as keen as that which exists between titles of the same group.
In short, these newspapers behaved like newspapers. They would not set aside their feelings of commercial rivalry in support of a wider cause. And of course the Mail behaved like a newspaper too. I am naturally shocked by suggestions that the poll was carried out in a less than rigorous way – the close correlation of ICM’s findings with the referendum results challenge this view – but no one can pretend that the Mail behaved impartially. Trying to reach out to Europhiles, it did advertise its poll in the Guardian and the Independent. But bearing in mind the lack of coverage in the rest of the media, it is a fair bet that most of the voters were Mail readers. To these the paper did not even bother to go through the rigmarole of appearing solemnly even-handed. On the morning of the vote it wheeled out two columnists on its centre pages, but not to express opposing views in the interests of balance. Simon Heffer offered one set of reasons for voting in favour of a European referendum, and Edward Heathcoat Amory gave another. It was tantamount to being bitten once by a Doberman pinscher and a second time by a Rottweiler.
Some people will regret the inability of the Eurosceptic press to get its act together, and organise a truly national referendum under the aegis of the Electoral Reform Society or some such body. It will never happen. The impetus for such a referendum will have to come from other quarters. Polly is almost entirely wrong. The Eurosceptic press could never rule this country because it is riven with competitive feelings. It can attack together but it will never work together to create anything. Individual titles are too small in the great scheme of things to make very much difference. They make as much clamour as they can, but no one should confuse noise with action. At some financial cost to itself, the Mail has in its inimitable way made a point – no more. All of us, including Polly, should feel cheerful. In the end, newspapers are newspapers, not alternative governments.
Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph contained some good things: the second part of a series about America by Graham Turner; a sensitive piece by A.N. Wilson about homosexual Anglican clergy: the customarily well-argued leaders; interesting obituaries. (Its obits are surely the best written of any newspaper, and those on servicemen of the second world war the Telegraph’s chief glory.)
But half of page seven was given over to a stupid charity tennis match involving preening stars, in which the girlfriend of Rod Stewart advertised what Perry Worsthorne would call her embonpoint. Worse still, much of page three was devoted to a story about a female soap star (of whom most people, let alone Telegraph readers, had never heard) who had unfortunately fallen from a 40-foot balcony. Many other papers also carried both stories, but was it necessary for the Daily Telegraph to give them such prominence? Executives may be telling Charles Moore, the paper’s editor, that if he wants readers to plough through Graham Turner he must give them plenty of light relief. But do they want so much, particularly when the unfortunate soap star is not even a household name? The Daily Star, for which television is the only reality, tucked her away on page seven.