Stephen Glover

Independent readers wanted bad news from Iraq; Mirror readers didn’t

Independent readers wanted bad news from Iraq; Mirror readers didn't

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This was not a good war for newspapers. I am not so much thinking of the journalism. Much of it was excellent, though newspapers are obviously at a disadvantage to 24-hour rolling news channels, which not only provide breaking stories but also analysis from people who surprisingly often know what they are talking about. Newspapers scarcely put on sales during the war, and those that did appear already to have lost them. This is very disheartening to editors who have burnt the midnight oil, to reporters on the spot who have risked life and limb, and to publishers who have spent tens of thousands of unbudgeted pounds only to see very little sales uplift, if any at all.

Exact figures are hard to establish. We have the ABC circulation figures for the whole of March, but hostilities did not begin until 20 March. On the other hand, papers were full of the war long before it started; in fact from the beginning of the month. The fanatically pro-war newspapers seem to have won few, if any, extra readers during March. (When I say 'readers', I really mean 'buyers'.) The Daily Telegraph's average circulation during the month was almost the same as it was in February. The Sun put on some 5,000 sales in March, but with a circulation of three and a half million that was scarcely significant. These papers may have been giving their readers what they wanted. Undoubtedly, the Telegraph's coverage from the Gulf was impressive. But whereas both titles drew in extra readers during the Falklands conflict, which was after all a great national war, they failed to do so on this occasion.

The anti-war papers offer a more varied analysis. The main loser was the Daily Mirror. It slipped below a daily sale of two million copies for the first time since records began. Remember that in its heyday the paper sold more than five million copies. Of course it might well have sunk below two million in March even if there had been no war. But Piers Morgan, the editor, had put the Daily Mirror in the forefront of the anti-war movement. Though he occasionally went over the top – a front-page picture suggested that George W. Bush was laughing because Iraqi civilians had been killed – much of the paper's analysis and reporting was well done. But it does not really matter what people like me think since I am not a natural Daily Mirror reader. Indeed, it may be a flaw in Mr Morgan that he cares too much about bien-pensant opinion. My guess is that many ordinary, decent, working-class readers did not like the Mirror's anti-war tone once the fighting had started. Their sense of patriotism was invoked as soon as Our Boys were shot at. Mr Morgan must have been aware of this problem, and there was praise for our soldiers. But his opposition to the war had been so uncompromising that he could not seek refuge in the device that now British troops were involved he would suspend adverse criticism. The paper lost 45,000 readers in the month, and we will have to see whether they come back.

The brainier anti-war papers did receive some uplift, particularly during the wobbly period at the very end of March when even the Telegraph's venerable John Keegan seems to have experienced fleeting doubts. Month-on-month the Independent put on only 1,400 copies, while its even more anti-war Sunday sister managed only an extra thousand. (While I am on the subject of the Independent on Sunday, I should say how elegant and readable its new magazine is, though sadly it is only handed out with the paper in London.) The Guardian increased its circulation by about 1 per cent during the month. Both it and the Independent appear to have added sales during the wobbly period. One possible inference is that middle-class readers of a leftish disposition do not feel the same qualms as the stouter and more patriotic folk who read the Daily Mirror. I fear there may have been some readers drawn to these two august titles in the hope of reading rousing stories about Iraqi resistance, and bloodcurdling tales of allied setbacks.

Actually the Guardian did achieve some balance. For every Seumas Milne or Jonathan Steele, it has a Jonathan Freedland or a David Aaronovitch. But the Independent was less balanced, chiefly because of its near-total reliance on Robert Fisk, who must be the most famous foreign correspondent of our day. As I said a couple of weeks ago, I revere Robert. I can even claim to have been one of those who persuaded him, when in a different life I was foreign editor of the Independent, to jump ship from the Times. I often found myself defending Robert against the accusation made by Marcus Sieff, chairman of the Independent and an ardent Zionist, that our new star correspondent was biased against Israel. He is a brave and brilliant correspondent, and so it grieves me to say that on this occasion he has allowed his anti-Americanism to get the better of him, and has had a pretty dreadful war.

Robert began by assuming that the Americans would flatten Baghdad, but during the wobbly period he inspected Iraqi defences south of Baghdad and wondered how the Americans could ever penetrate them. On 1 April he declared that General Tommy Franks has 'turned the monster of Baghdad into the hero of the Arab world and allowed Iraqis to teach every opponent of America how to fight their enemy'. (Eh?) He gave terrible descriptions of Iraqi casualties, offering details of human brains splattered across a garage, severed limbs and bits of babies. But he scarcely spared a single thought for the suffering of British soldiers, and emphasised their inability to take Basra. Perhaps Robert would have been fine if there had been another voice to counteract him, but there was not. The Independent did him, and itself, no favours by running him so often on the front page, on one occasion (after a bomb had fallen on Baghdad which Robert immediately pinned on the Americans, though it has not been proved) printing his lurid description in large type.

Perhaps none of this matters now because the extra readers who were attracted by this kind of thing have melted away. The Independent needs more permanent solutions to its circulation difficulties. The war has changed very little for newspapers. (But it is worth asking whether the mildly pro-war Observer did not suffer for its views with some of its readers. Its circulation fell some 3 per cent in March, though Sunday papers usually lose sales when the clocks go forward because an hour of buying time is lost.) The only clear long-term newspaper casualty of the war would appear to be the Daily Mirror. Even if the peace goes wrong, it may not be able to make it up with those readers who did not like its coverage of the war.