One of the highlights of my week comes on a Saturday morning, when I make myself a cup of fair-trade coffee and settle down to read the letters page of the Guardian. My wife usually joins me — it’s a sort of date thing, romantic in its own way — and we sit there cackling, our cares and woes forgotten for a while. Sometimes it is the smug little commendations of some earnest article that has uncovered the suffering of an hitherto unreported minority of the population — that stuff is quite funny. But then all newspapers print letters from readers telling them how good they are. Much more fun — and fecund — are the gripes, the expressions of outrage and fury, the voluptuous revelling in acquired victimhood, the absolute intolerance of views which run counter to their own. That’s where we get our real laughs.
For example, the Guardian magazine has long since ceased using attractive young models for its fashion stuff, in an attempt to be politically correct. But still the moans will come in about how much the clothes cost and, really, should you be writing about fashion when Cameron and his fascist junta are busy murdering innocent benefit claimants? That’s a weekly gripe. God forbid anyone interviewed in the pages of that publication uses language which could be deemed offensive to the LGBQT community; there will be a howling at the moon.
And so we sit and snigger at the epic self-regard, the desperate yearning to be transgressed, the nursery-school Stalinism, all on display. You wonder how the hell you could write for this publication — you must have to watch every word for a possible slip. The injudicious use of a word like ‘-grandmother’, for example (banned by the Guardian style guide. She’s just a woman, you sexist bastard). It must be murder — more of which later.
I mentioned the pleasure we get from reading these bien-pensant middle-class idiocies to a friend of mine — and he revealed that he does the same thing. He buys the Guardian once a week, just to laugh at the letters. It struck me that quite soon the people who buy the Guardian to laugh at its readers will be the only readers — and then where will we be? The paper’s circulation has dipped below 200,000 recently, a huge reduction, and it is easily outsold by the Independent’s ‘I’ edition.
Either the staff will have to make up fatuous gripes and moans to fill the letters page or we’ll have to start making them up ourselves and sending them in. A bit like Craig Brown’s very funny Bel Little-john column, a satire of a particularly cretin-ous feminist hack, back when the paper had a sense of humour. He couldn’t get away with that now. Well, I suppose he could, but nobody would think that it was funny. They’d just take it all at face value. Yeah, right on, Bel. Stick it to da man.
I’ve become so worried about the Guardian’s declining readership that I am considering spending 500 quid to become a ‘Guardian founding member’ in order to prop it up a while longer and maybe pay for the outgoing editor, Alan Rusbridger, to have some more piano lessons. There was a plea for people to cough up from the reliably hilarious and high-born Polly Toynbee just this week. It was almost as funny as the letters page.
Why does the Guardian feel the need to squeeze even more cash from its readers than the daily price of the paper itself? Here’s Polly: ‘The Guardian’s life has always been precarious because we don’t have an owner or a corporation propping us up. We don’t have a press baron or oligarch ordering us to take their political or commercial line. We swim alone in a dangerous world of media sharks, our independence precious and unique. Our free and progressive voice matters not just for our own sake, but for the politics and diversity of a society currently dominated by the views of a few media owners with similar views to each other.’
What magnificent cant. It’s the readership that props up a newspaper — owners and corporations tend to be unsentimental entities, no? Later in her panhandling essay, Toynbee suggests that the Guardian is to be valued because its journalists do not have ‘one eye looking over their shoulder’ at their proprietor’s whims. Leave for a moment the spectacle of someone looking with one eye over their shoulder, or how you might ‘see’ a whim — writing was never one of Polly’s strengths, if we’re honest — the suggestion that the other daily newspapers are hamstrung by the political concerns of their owners is deceitful or deluded, one of the two.
I have worked for publications owned by Conrad Black, the Guardian’s arch-Satan Rupert Murdoch, and the Barclay brothers. I have also worked for Polly’s pristine conduit — and I can tell you that when it comes to political interference in copy, the only place I’ve had even the remotest problem, in 15 years, was the Guardian. Not a huge problem, I admit — they stopped me using the word ‘monkey’ to describe someone who was behaving like a monkey, jabbering, being mischievous. They said it was racist. I said well, OK, but the man I’m talking about is white. They said yes, but people might think he’s black. The following week I described someone as being a wolv-erine — they cut that out too. They said a wolverine was a kind of ape and was therefore racist. I said no, a wolverine is a sort of large, ferocious weasel. And they said yes, but someone might think that it’s a kind of ape, and therefore racist.
Small beer, for sure — but the point holds. Only the Guardian. I’ve never had any kind of problem with any of the scumbag oligarchs, tycoons, fascist corporations — despite dissing Sky, sniggering in print about Barbara Amiel, suggesting people should vote Labour, demanding increases to the minimum wage, opposing the war in Iraq, criticising our trade links with China and referring to the Barclays as ‘the Ribbentrop twins’ the week they took over this magazine — hell, I could go on. Never any political interference at any point from all those bad guys. Only the Guardian.