Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Times they are a changin’ and have been for quite some time. If you want to make money, leave The Thunderer well alone. Oh, and things could well be looking up for the scruffs on the extreme Left/extreme Right. Now there’s an enticing prospect for another 50 years of peace in Europe

Years ago, about 24 although it doesn’t feel that long oddly enough, when I was more naive than I am now, I thought that it would be a good idea to try to get a documentary series about the Press barons onto TV. As far as I was concerned, they were a fascinating bunch, some completely off-the-wall, some not quite so off-the-wall, but all of them not at all like you and me. I still think so, but as for getting a documentary made, well forget it. It pains me to do so, but I shall do so again: I was very naive, though sadly no more naive than a great many other people.

This was in the early days of Channel 4 when it largely stuck to its brief of being ‘different’ (it doesn’t do so any more), and it did screen a lot of interesting stuff. I thought it might well be a natural home for such a series. Sadly, these days ‘different’ doesn’t ring any bells, and if it doesn’t involved celebrities cooking, celebrities dancing, celebrities buying bric-a-brac, celebrities eating nasty insects in some faux jungle a mile or two from Brisbane city centre it hasn’t got the faintest chance of making it to the small screen.

The culture of TV has changed a great deal since then and there is far less money around, and what there is has to be spread so thinly because of the number of competing channels that if you can’t get your programme made for peanuts, it ain’t going to be shown. Thus we now have the proliferation of property programmes, cookery programmes and antiques programmes, as well as all the ‘reality’ TV crap. The one virtue they have as far as the TV luvvies are concerned is that they are cheap to make. But even in those days, pre Sky and all the other Freeview bollocks when there were only the two BBC TV channels and ITV (which was still flying high and which in those days still consisted of a number of regional companies, all under the ITV tent), getting a documentary made wasn’t just down to some bright spark having a good idea.

Before I contacted Channel 4 and three or four of the bigger ITV companies, I did what, were I to bullshit, I could call ‘research’. Actually, what it boiled down to was that I read a few books. And that is how I came to know a little of the history of The Times and why it has been something of a nine-bob note (nine dollar/euro/rubel bill) for the past 100 years. It was most certainly true that at one point The Times was not only the most pre-eminent paper in Britain, but also had a good worldwide reputation. But that was not necessarily down to its journalism. It was all rooted in something of a stroke of luck.

The rotary press was invented in the early 1840s and patented a few years later. It transformed the British newspaper industry. Until then, newspapers had been printed on flatbed press - type was laid out in a frame on a flat bed, inked and it was covered with a sheet of newsprint which had a page printed on it. Not only was the process time-consuming, it was also expensive, and the circulation of even the leading papers of the day was around 10,000. They simply couldn’t print enough in one night to sell any more. These papers were then distributed and as they were expensive, each edition was read by a great many people. But the rotary press changed all that. With a rotary press the number of copies which could be printed rose tenfold, and it was also a cheaper technology. And this is where The Times stroke of luck came in. For under its then editor John Delane, the Times managed to lease exclusive rights to use the rotary press for ten years. Suddenly it could print far more copies than its rivals and its production costs came down. And it made a great deal more money, which it used to extend its network of reporters and correspondents. (Incidentally, its nickname The Thunderer, which those self-regarding eejits at The Times like to refer to proudly, was originally a satirical gibe at how the The Times took itself so seriously.)

As usual, success begat success, and in the mid-19th century The Times really was top dog. What they won’t happily tell you was once their ten-year exclusive right to use the rotary press ended and all the other papers could get in on the act, their circulation also shot up as their costs also fell. And by the second half of the 19th century, the Daily Telegraph, even today, the only true rival to The Times, had already overtaken it in circulation. By the end of the century it was no longer making a profit and at the beginning of the 20th century it was even briefly owned by Lord Northcliffe, who had made his name and fortune with his new downmarket Daily Mail (‘written by office boys for office boys’ was the opinion of Lord Salisbury, then Prime Minister), but even his undoubted newspaper genius couldn’t get it back into the black. And it has not turned a profit in more than 110 years.

These days, under the ownership of News International (‘Britain’s No 1 Phone Hacker’) it is still subsidised by group profits, but there is talk of shutting it down now that those profits are massively dented by the closure of the News of the Screws. It’s circulation in October 2011 was a piss-poor 417,197. Ten years earlier it was 678,498. Maths isn’t my strong suit but I make that a decline of more than 38pc. It has, admittedly, been a bad decade for newspapers all round. The figures for the Telegraph are 974,362 and 603,901, also just over 38pc, for the Daily Mail 2,421,795 and 1,998,363, a decline of 17.5pc, and The Sun 3,451,746 and 2,715,473, a decline of 21.3pc. Most alarming of all are the figures for the Mirror, The Suns’ sworn rival: 2,180,227 and 1,118,120, a decline of a deeply alarming 51pc.

So much for The Thunderer.
. . .

The really silly thing about all this euro crisis nonsense is that the people who matter most, the very people on whose behalf the EU purportedly does all its good deeds - viz the plethora of regulations making life better, safer and prettier - are almost forgotten in all the argy-bargy. Yes, Merkel does this and suggests that, and Sarkozy suggests that and does this, but at the end of the day, they are only there on sufferance. And both face election. (Incidentally, in an EU of equals - well, in theory - where are all the other heads of state? One of the justifications for the EU was to end the dominance and rivalry of Germany and France in European affairs, a rivalry which had led to war on several occasions. Yet which two countries are now ‘taking the lead’ in trying to sort out the country? Latvia and Portugal? Try again. Netherlands and Cyprus? Er, not quite. Germany and France? Well, done! Give that man a chocolate!)

France goes to the polls to elect its new president at the end of April next year, and Merkel faces elections 18 months later in September 2013. The accepted wisdom is that membership of the EU is such a good thing that in all member states the sitting government and its opposition are in favour. Ah, but what about the people, those ordinary men and women who, so far in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland are having a very shitty time because of what they regard as the behaviour of EU placemen. Enda Kenny appeared on TV last night preparing the Irish for even further austerity measures, including raising VAT to 23pc. How to the ordinary people - let me remind you: the very people on whose behalf this is all being done - feel now? Are they really as well-inclined to the EU as once they were when those two letters were regarded as shorthand for an easy life of plenty at no cost whatsoever? When it comes to ticking the ballot paper, what will be uppermost in their minds: the easy life they once had or the shitty life they now have? But, I hear you cry, it doesn’t matter: both the incumbent government and the opposition are EU supporters, so there is no chance ...

Well, sadly, there is a chance, a rather frightening chance that some opposition might opt for political expediency and stop toeing the party line on all things EU. They might choose to destroy the cosy consensus which has always been part of the EU’s strength. But that would not be the worst scenario. Presented with the Hobson’s choice of voting to re-elect a government which is bringing them nothing but pain or to replace it with an opposition which also promises to continue the pain, the voters might be inclined to favour some of the scruffier individuals who exist on the margins of political consensus. And there are enough of those.

On the left, Greece, Spain and Portugal all have a thriving extreme left, and were that not to worry you, it is neatly balance in those countries by an extreme right. In Franct the Front National is doing rather well in the polls, now standing at 20pc. In Italy the Northern League has a great deal of support, and although it is not regarded as a right-wing party, it is on its way. The real problem for European democrats is that should any of these, whether on the left or the right, garner substantially more votes - and a protest vote is still a vote - and be in a position of holding the balance of power, they have no choice but to accept it. After all the people will have spoken. Trying the trick they used successfully in Ireland - holding a second ballot when the voters rather inconveniently did not give the EU the result it wanted - will not be possible. What to do? Aux armes citoyens! Now there’s a prospect for the institution which many claim has ensured peace in Europe for the past 60 years.

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