When in 2009 I published a book called The Real Global Warming Disaster it provoked contrasting responses from two members of the royal family. Prince Charles, protesting that he was ‘bemused’ by my views on climate change, struck me off his Christmas card list, where I had been for 25 years since we became environmental allies back in the 1980s. I was, however, startled and delighted to have a long, thoughtful and sympathetic letter about the book from Prince Philip, whom I had met only once, and which, inter alia, led me to be far from surprised when he last year made headlines for having dismissed wind turbines as ‘absolutely useless’. Back in the 1960s, now to my shame, I once wrote a far from kindly profile of Prince Philip in Private Eye. Over the decades since, like many others, I have come to have ever more admiration for him, not least since he represents those values of robust masculine common sense which in the post-war years when I grew up were taken for granted, but which in our public life are today little more than a memory. Last year one newspaper marked his 90th birthday by publishing a list of his ‘notorious gaffes’. Since then I have met several people who, like me, went through that list ticking off every one of his supposedly embarrassing comments with a nod of amused approval. How fortunate we are to have had such a man at the centre of our national life for 65 years.
One of the best-kept secrets of British journalism, because it is scarcely in the interests of newspapers to report it, is the alarming speed at which their readership has been collapsing. When the monthly circulation figures appear, my first instinct is always to look at those for the two newspapers with which I have been most associated — the Sunday Telegraph now down to 458,487, having lost 9 per cent of its sales in the past year (seven years ago it was three quarters of a million), the Daily Telegraph down to 581,249 (when once it stood at over a million). But even these losses pale beside those of many other titles — the Financial Times in the past year has lost nearly 14 per cent, the Observer 15 per cent, the Guardian 16 per cent, the Mail on Sunday 21 per cent, the Sunday Express 22 per cent, the Independent on Sunday 30 per cent and the Sunday Mirror nearly 40 per cent. Admittedly there are special factors here, such as the fleeting boost given to Sunday tabloids by the News of the World’s closure, but the general impression that newspapers are a dying industry is unmistakable. Different reasons might be given for this, some more trenchant than others, but certainly these losses are not being made up by any corresponding gain in revenue from those who now read their newspapers online.
It seemed quixotic of the New York Times to headhunt the BBC’s director-general Mark Thompson as its new chief executive on the grounds that he had helped to build the BBC’s website into one of the world’s most-read. One doubts whether chucking millions of licence payers’ pounds at the BBC website is a trick the paper could afford to repeat.
What the New York Times also clearly hadn’t registered about the BBC is that, under Mr Thompson’s direction, its journalism has become more than ever a national embarrassment. It’s not just that on a whole range of issues, from climate change to the economy, it has become so childishly biased (when has its journalists’ obsession with ‘wicked bankers’ and ‘cuts’ allowed them to tell us that the government now borrows a record £4 billion a week to finance its spending deficit?). Any vestige of professional standards has gone out of the window. So blinkered have they become that they have lately completely missed by far the most important story of the moment: the debate raging in Germany as that country finally loses patience with the idea that it should be expected any longer to bail out the doomed euro. We may recall economics editor Stephanie Flanders some time back pouring scorn on all those predicting that the euro would ‘crash and burn’, as she proclaimed its future was ‘secure’. When its collapse dominates the front pages this autumn, will she even notice?
In our record-breakingly wet summer, I have seen fewer butterflies than I can remember in all the 68 years I have been observing these stunningly colourful insects. But on a hot afternoon this week I was delighted to see 20 peacocks and small tortoiseshells on just one buddleia in our Somerset orchard, all having suddenly emerged in perfect condition. Long gone may be those clouds of butterflies familiar in my youth, but such miraculous powers of survival can still give us cause for astonished pleasure.
Christopher Booker is a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph.