Of all the footling items that regularly appear in our newspapers, among the most irritating are the boastful trumpeting of the latest circulation figures.
It is information the reader could do without and cares not to know. When we open a packet of cornflakes we do not expect to find printed on the wrapping: “For the first time sales of Wheaty Bits have passed the 4 million mark, 110,000 up on the corresponding period last year and a thumping 780,000 more than the ailing Wheaty Morsels which are in deep trouble and taste like stoat droppings.”
Circulation is, of course, the measure of a newspaper’s virility. But bragging about the size of one’s organ is a tiresome thing to do, and contrasting it unfavourably with the dimensions of another’s is simply vulgar.
Only one group of readers might conceivably be interested in the sales figures of their chosen paper and they are the followers of The Sun. When you are moronic, semi-literate, and by turns mawkishly sentimental and cruelly vengeful, it may come as a comfort during those rare moments of self-awareness to know there are millions of others just like you.
The Daily Mail’s braggadocio was as tediously predictable as that of any other paper until last week when it had an unexpected twist. The stock headline “Mail soars ahead of Express” was lengthened by a parenthetical “and Telegraph”, which may have surprised readers who had not thought of their paper as being in competition with the broadsheet heavyweight.
Why were they being told that, since the Telegraph appointed a new editor in November 1995, the Mail had increased the gap over its rival by an incredible 291,862 copies? (If the figure was incredible, why believe it?) Of what interest was it to them that the Telegraph was in “serious trouble”, that its over-the-counter sales were “disastrous”, and that “more disturbingly” it was making no money?
To find the answer they needed to have seen an editorial in the Telegraph printed four days earlier and headed “The Intruders”. This, in no uncertain terms, accused the Mail of hypocrisy in claiming to have led the way in banning paparazzi pictures. “Last Tuesday,” said the editorial, “the Daily Mail published what was the most disgusting of all front pages in a uniquely disgusting week for the tabloids. ‘Charles weeps bitter tears of guilt,’ it shouted…the two writers told us that he stalked the moors, asking: ‘Why, why, why?’ and blaming himself for the Princess’s death.” How, asked the Telegraph, could the Mail possibly know what Charles thought as he walked alone?
This drew a fearfully angry response from Sir David English, chairman of Associated Newspapers, who accused the Telegraph of trying to gain an “unworthy commercial advantage”. The editorial was, he said, a “self- aggrandising commercial operation”. He did not, however, explain why readers of the Daily Mail should be driven into the arms of another paper as a result of a leading article which in all probability they had not read.
The Telegraph returned to the attack and Sir David fired off another riposte accusing the enemy of a “calumny of lies, black propaganda and inaccuracies”. He had been at the thesaurus and was feeling the effects.
From the safety of the sidelines, this is an amusing spat between pots and kettles. The Daily Mail is not a bad paper. How could it be with columnists of the quality of Keith Waterhouse, Andrew Alexander, and Ian Wooldridge and contributors of the quality of Paul Johnson, Ann Leslie, and John Casey? And if under-the-hairdryer, tooth-sucking homiletics are your cup of tea, there is no finer exponent than Lynda Lee-Potter. The Mail is sui generis and curate’s egg. Years ago it recognised the emergence of a new class of reader: female, well-educated and ambitious, she matched a lively intelligence with an abiding feminine interest in gossip about royalty and celebrities. The Mail made her its own and prospered.
Much later the Telegraph discovered that there was no longer a sufficiently large constituency of learned, high-minded, serious, and thoughtful readers to pay its way, and so began its slide into the inconsequential waters of trivia. Headlines such as “Joan Collins: My best relationship with a man so far” and “Look what’s happened to Kylie Minogue” would have had readers of the old Telegraph reaching for the sal volatile or expiring with boredom.
So it is true. The Mail and Telegraph, once as different as port wine and lemonade, are day by day becoming increasingly alike. Even so, Telegraph editor Charles Moore is on safe ground when he condemns the Mail’s appalling, sub-Cartlandesque treatment of its Prince Charles story. Phrases such as “the tears that had coursed down his ever-suntanned cheeks” would not appear masquerading as news coverage in a serious newspaper, though the way things are going, one day they might.
But no one does these things better than the Mail. Its latest, ground-breaking circulation brag includes a quote from an unnamed “media analyst” who says the trouble with the Telegraph is that it is “edited by a dilettante who is more concerned with venting his spleen on the airwaves than actually editing his paper. It’s a disgusting abuse of his position”.
Who would have guessed that a media analyst could be so impassioned? I’ll bet he stalks alone and brooding, asking himself again and again in shuddering, wracked torment “Why? Why? Oh why?”