Nigel Dempster was the most famous print journalist of modern times, even though he seldom appeared on television. I remember his coming down to Oxford in the early Seventies. A group of admirers lured him to the Saraceno restaurant in Magdalen Street. Foremost among them was Tina Brown, already setting her compass in the direction of Fleet Street. Everyone was entranced by Nigel. There was scarcely anyone in the world whom a group of undergraduates would rather have met.
Last week Nigel left the Daily Mail after 30 years. He was a raffish and glamorous poacher who gradually turned into a grand gamekeeper. To start with, he saw much to mock in the ways of the aristocracy. As time went on, he found these people less risible, and grew to like them. But his love affair was not mirrored in the nation. On the contrary, as he became fonder of the aristocracy, ordinary people were beginning to grow bored of them. This may have applied even to some readers of the Daily Mail. In Blairite Britain members of the aristocracy were no longer the richest or necessarily the most beautiful people. Certainly they were no longer the most outrageous in their behaviour. In this sense the upper classes let Nigel down. Forgivably, he was not greatly attracted by the new class of ‘celebrities’ whose frequently vulgar or loutish antics preoccupy a new breed of gossip columnists such as the Daily Mirror’s ‘3 am Girls’.
I wonder whether the Royal Family is not following the aristocracy down the same path. The royal reporter of the Sun has recently been told that he will be expected to cover general news stories as well as royal ones. This is an extraordinary development. It is a rum state of affairs if the Sun can no longer find enough royal stories for one person to write about. But the tabloids lost their main star in a Parisian underpass. Her elder son, William, is largely off-limits at St Andrews, as Harry will be at Sandhurst. Whom does that leave? Royal spin doctors are said to be rather pleased by the lack of interest, but I am not sure they are right. Indifference tells its own story. Newspapers may be coming to the conclusion that in Britain, which must be the most dumbed-down country in the world, people would rather read about David Beckham.
Nigel Dempster’s replacement at the Daily Mail is Richard Kay, its royal correspondent. No one could doubt that Mr Kay was a master of his game. He is one of those journalists who, because he has a winning smile and tends not to say too much, encourages people to open their hearts. Most famously he became the sounding board to Diana, Princess of Wales, and was once discovered listening to her outpourings in the front seat of her Audi convertible. But even Mr Kay may have come to the conclusion that royal reporting does not have much of a future, which may partly explain why he has taken on Nigel Dempster’s mantle.
But what will he write about? Nigel’s old cast of upper-class characters and Arab sheikhs no longer carries wide appeal. The Daily Mail also happens to be the Waterloo Station of gossip columnists. There is the Ephraim Hardcastle column, compered by Peter McKay, which offers teasing and opinionated items about politicians, media figures and sometimes the showbiz world. There is Wicked Whispers, written by John McEntee, which is more concerned with straightforward celebrities. There is the Peterborough column, a recent importation after the Daily Telegraph ditched that name, which is written by readers. And now there is Richard Kay.
My guess is that he will combine pieces about celebrities with others about the Royal Family, who are not quite one with Nineveh and Tyre. Will there be enough stories to go round? We will see. But it is clear that although the cast of characters changes as society changes, gossip columns have remarkable staying power, even though many news stories now contain gossip which would have once been reserved for the gossip column. Editors like them because they oversee them directly, and sometimes use them to attack their enemies. Readers seem also to like them so long as they reflect a world which they think is interesting.
The rudest article I have read in recent days about Iain Duncan Smith was by Alice Thomson in the Daily Telegraph. IDS, according to Ms Thomson, is ‘neither decent nor quiet’ and ‘has no manners’. He is also lousy at dealing with staff, off-hand with potential party donors and dismissive of his backbenchers. Quite a write-up. In the last two weeks of Charles Moore’s editorship, one or two editorials have been surprisingly testy about IDS, though not rude in the manner of Ms Thomson. Mr Moore was a friend of IDS even before he became Tory leader, and enthusiastically backed him against Ken Clarke.
All this has set me thinking. If IDS could not count on the unqualified support of Mr Moore’s Telegraph in the last days of the regime, what hopes should he have of the new editor, Martin Newland? The paper’s leader writers have mostly despaired of Mr Duncan Smith. As someone who claims not to be a Tory, Mr Newland is unlikely to have that natural loyalty which Telegraph editors habitually feel for the party leader.
The Daily Telegraph may well dump IDS if things get worse. As for the Daily Mail, while it rages about the hopelessness and unelectability of the Tories, it has so far spared him. But his support in that paper may hang by a thread. Quite soon IDS could discover — short of a series of miraculous polls — that he has entirely lost the backing of the right-wing press.
In his diary in this magazine last week, Charles Moore says that I was ‘quite seriously wrong’ about the history of the Daily Telegraph in my column the previous week. Mr Moore wrote that I was mistaken to suggest that Max Hastings turned the paper pro-European, since it had always been so. He also took me to task for suggesting that the pre-Conrad Black Daily Telegraph was less pro-Israeli and pro-American than the newspaper Mr Moore edited.
I dealt with the second point in my final item last week. Of course, Lord Hartwell’s Daily Telegraph was Zionist and pro-American. It is a question of degree. The modern Daily Telegraph does not merely support Israel; it fervently backs one particular party, Likud. It is not simply pro-American; it has almost completely identified itself with George W. Bush. I do not think one would have found such passionate association with a particular Israeli political party or a particular American president in Lord Hartwell’s Daily Telegraph.
As for Europe, it is true the Telegraph was nominally pro-European before the Europhile Max Hastings became editor. But only nominally. For a long time, of course, federalism was not an issue. But as Margaret Thatcher in office became increasingly critical of some of the ways of what was still called the Common Market, so did the Daily Telegraph. Mr Moore’s great mentor T.E. Utley wrote anti-EU pieces, and rued the day in 1975 when he had voted in favour of our staying in Europe.