Is the Daily Mirror for sale? It is, according to a well-placed City source. He says it is being offered around to 'the buy-out boys'. My instinct is that he is right, and that Trinity Mirror wants to offload its troubled national daily, as well as its other national titles.
Until 1999 Trinity Mirror was Trinity, a strong group publishing profitable regional titles. Then it made what has turned out to be the serious mistake of buying Mirror Group Newspapers. For although Trinity had plenty of experience with regionals such as the Birmingham Post and the Liverpool Echo, it knew little or nothing about the very different business of publishing red-top national newspapers. In Sir Victor Blank it acquired a chairman who, though he had been a successful merchant banker, was ignorant of the newspaper business. This might not have mattered had not the company's long-term chief executive, Philip Graf, been equally at sea in the world of national newspapers. The consequence was that both men found themselves relying on Piers Morgan, the Daily Mirror's editor, more than was strictly prudent.
Matters came to a head in March when the Daily Mirror relaunched itself as a more upmarket title with a £20 million promotional budget. The paper's 1950s heyday under the direction of Hugh Cudlipp was giddily invoked. But although the move was cheered by some observers, it found little favour with the punters. Despite a reduced cover price, the paper lost sales even more quickly than it had previously. Circulation is now down by 5 per cent over the year. When last month Mr Graf announced that he intended to leave the paper next year, it was generally assumed that his scalp had been taken. Matters turned to farce when a new finance director was hired and then fired before he had even joined the company.
Not surprisingly, Trinity Mirror's share price has been languishing. Of course, these are difficult times for all newspaper publishers because of the slump in advertising revenue. But the market has perceived that Trinity has particular problems, and some people have been asking whether it is capable of running a stable of national newspapers, all of which happen to be in long-term decline. It has not escaped their notice that the company's regional titles have been faring a great deal better. One big American shareholder, Tweedy Browne, has called for a break-up. Other American investors are said to be upset by the Daily Mirror's increasingly strident opposition to a second Gulf war, and the anti-American rhetoric which flows from the likes of John Pilger. None of this has gone down well at No. 10 either.
This is the backdrop to the reported hawking around of the national titles in the City. Their sale may not be made any easier by Trinity Mirror's announcement earlier this week that for the fourth time in three years it will have to boost payments to its staff pension scheme, thereby eating into its already dwindling profits. But I would think that, notwithstanding all their problems, there would be eager takers for the Daily Mirror and its sister titles. Who might they be? One name being bandied about is that of Richard Desmond, the pornographer who owns Express Newspapers. Since he supports New Labour, his stewardship of the Mirror papers would suit the government. On the other hand, it is very difficult to see how he could be allowed to own them under existing competition rules. The same applies to the other national newspaper groups which may be eyeing up the titles. Just as Trinity swooped from nowhere, it may be that the next owner of the Daily Mirror will not be a household name. My bet is that in six months' time the newspaper will not belong to Trinity.
A couple of weeks ago I mused about the so-called 'commentariat' - the increasingly powerful group of pundits who are usurping some of the traditional powers of politicians. At both Labour and Tory party conferences there were droves of columnists giving delegates the benefit of their views on the great issues of the day. My line was that journalists who edge on to the national stage should expect to be treated as national figures, and to be judged by the same lights as they have themselves previously judged politicians.
But the commentariat also works behind the scenes. Here we must distinguish between a government's attitude towards friendly pundits, and that of an opposition. New Labour has its special favourites. I have noticed that Polly Toynbee, who is practically my favourite columnist in the world, from time to time writes a breathless pro-New Labour piece which bears the stamp of a recent inspiring encounter at No. 10. But a government with vast resources at its disposal has less need of the minds of clever journalists than does an opposition. The lower the Tories are in the water, the greater their appetite for the intellectual ministrations of the right-wing commentariat.
According to last week's Guardian, Norman Tebbit has identified a group of right-wing journalists on the Times and Daily Telegraph who, he claims, are trying to do him down, and ideally have him expelled from the party. Lord Tebbit is said by the Guardian to have referred to this shadowy group as 'The Movement'. It sounds exciting, and a wee bit sinister.
Some pundits become too involved in party politics, and thereby mortgage their independence. After a time they become so close to particular politicians they can no longer criticise them. They cannot publish the secrets they learn because to do so would be considered a breach of confidence that would end their relationship. Their first duty is no longer to their newspapers and readers but to the politicians whom they serve. The best-informed Tory journalist of the past 15 years - in the sense that he knew more than anyone else from the inside - was very far from being the best Tory pundit.
It is no use denying that over the years this column has occasionally teased Max Hastings. So you can imagine my surprise when I was asked by the Daily Telegraph to review Sir Max's new book about his editorship of that paper between 1986 and 1995. I received no requests to be nice or to be nasty. I ploughed away, and rather liked what I read. No one could deny that Max has his engaging side. None could doubt his decisive role in rescuing the Telegraph. I said all this in a review which some may have regarded as a bit soppy.
Perhaps I may be forgiven, therefore, for pointing out that an overzealous subeditor removed a sentence without consulting me, which is not normal procedure, and rather unbalanced the review. It ran as follows: 'If Max was absolutely the right man to revive the Daily Telegraph, he was not in the end the right man to edit it.' (The reason, of course, is that he was too left-wing for the paper.) I just thought I would mention this little excision lest Max or others think I have gone completely soft in the head.