The serious newspapers — what we used to call the broadsheets — have extracted themselves from the frying pan only to find themselves in the fire. For years they lived in a world of reduced cover prices which meant lower revenues. Rupert Murdoch started that when he slashed the price of the Times in September 1993. Last year the war petered out as the Times and its rivals raised their cover prices. And then what happened? A new war began — the tabloid war. But it was not Mr Murdoch who on this occasion commenced hostilities. It was the Independent. The small, loss-making Independent, whose competitors were used to talking of it in condescending terms.
On September 30 the paper launched a tabloid format within the M25 area. On November 26 the Times followed suit. The Daily Telegraph and the Guardian may soon join battle. It is as though Tranmere Rovers had decided that it was a good idea to play a new style of football, only to find Manchester United jumping on the bandwagon. The Independent is naturally very pleased with itself, having shown a year-on-year sales increase of some 9 per cent as a result of selling the tabloid alongside the broadsheet version. The Times’s gains are less dramatic, but they have partly reversed an alarming recent decline in circulation. The paper is thought to have made a net gain in December of 33,000 copies in the M25 area. From Monday the tabloid Times has been on sale in over half the country. The tabloid Independent is available almost everywhere.
At the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph there is an air of trepidation. The Guardian, with its journalistic flair, might have been expected to be the first broadsheet to go tabloid, yet it finds itself outsmarted by the much weaker Independent. Not only that. There is some evidence that the increase in the Independent’s circulation is partly at the expense of the Guardian. Throughout the price war the paper’s sale remained rock-solid. But its December daily average of 375,073 was the lowest for some years, and some 3 per cent down on November. Some of its executives think that the paper has to join the party. But it would be expensive to do so: the Independent is spending at least an extra £5 million a year to produce a tabloid and a broadsheet version, while the Times, with its greater volumes, may be spending three times as much.
The Times is not primarily concerned with the Independent. Mr Murdoch is applying new pressure to the Daily Telegraph, which finds itself in an agony of indecision about whether or not to go tabloid. The paper’s average daily December circulation of 911,795 was the lowest for 50 years. It is now outsold in London by the Times. To produce and distribute a tabloid as well as a broadsheet version would be very expensive at a time when there is renewed cost-cutting at the paper. On the other hand, if the Daily Telegraph does nothing it may lose sales to the Times’s tabloid, though I suspect these would be very marginal.
What should the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian do? It is a difficult call. One can see that the fear of being left behind is a very strong one. And yet this obsession with shape seems to me rather dangerous. It is all about marketing rather than journalism. There is nothing new about the tabloid Times and the tabloid Independent apart from form. They are simply mini-broadsheets which in terms of content offer no improvements. Are readers really likely to be impressed by this in the long term? Of course there are some commuters for whom the tabloid shape has practical advantages, but these are probably in a minority. The Times and the Independent are buying extra readers by publishing two versions, and so long as they continue to do so, at some considerable cost to themselves, they will probably boost their sales. But I wouldn’t count on the Independent hanging on to its new buyers when, or if, it dispenses with the broadsheet shape and offers itself only in a tabloid form. Of course its success, even if only short-lived, gives a stab of pride to those of us who were associated with it in its early years. But in the end I regard these tabloid games as a device to boost sales rather than a revolution in quality journalism.
The Daily Telegraph, in particular, would be ill-advised to join the rush in the present circumstances. The paper may soon be on the auction block. It is being subjected to another round of editorial cuts, and long-serving columnists are being defenestrated. The journalists are up in arms over their latest pay offer and (unwisely in my view) threaten the first strike since the days of Lord Hartwell. It seems a little crazy to be making further editorial savings while contemplating the huge investment of publishing a tabloid edition. Why not strengthen the paper instead, and leave it to the new management, if there is one, to make the far-reaching decision about whether or not to go tabloid?
Last week I mentioned a dinner held for Andrew Gilligan at which three Spectator columnists, including myself, were present, along with two senior Observer executives, a distinguished Guardian journalist, a couple of Labour MPs (one of whom left early), a Welsh Nationalist and several others. Did this not show, I asked, that support for Mr Gilligan came from many quarters?
Nick Cohen in the Observer takes a different view. Mr Cohen, though on the Left, was a supporter of the war. He does not admire Mr Gilligan. Though he did not attend the dinner, he is uneasy about it. He also said that ‘several liberal hacks’ felt uncomfortable in retrospect about dining in supposedly right-wing company. Mr Cohen suggested that what took right-wingers to the dinner — including David Davis, the Tory home affairs spokesman — was a dislike of Tony Blair, and a desire to use this affair to destroy him.
Mr Davis must speak for himself. I don’t doubt that hatred of Mr Blair brought many people, whether of the Left or Right, to Luigi’s restaurant in Covent Garden. But what really drew me, and I suspect several others, was a sense of solidarity with Andrew Gilligan. God knows, he has made some mistakes, but if it had not been for him we would probably not have had such a vigorous post-war debate about weapons of mass destruction, and their apparent absence. Alastair Campbell tried to destroy Mr Gilligan, and the BBC may now disown him. We all have to make our judgment of him — Mr Cohen has made his, I have made mine. I like to think most of us would have been at that dinner whoever the prime minister was.
The Sunday Telegraph last week ran a front-page piece in its business section about the tribulations of its parent company, Hollinger International. The suggestion was that for tax reasons the Telegraph Group is unlikely to be sold by Hollinger as a separate business. A buyer would have to bid for the Chicago-Sun Times and the Jerusalem Post as well. I have no idea whether this story will turn out to be true, but it is heartening to see the Sunday Telegraph at last reporting the affairs of Hollinger International in a robust way.