Is anybody out there who remembers the slogan., “Did you ever wish that you were better informed?” You might recognise it as a line from the Billy Bragg song, “It says here…”, a coruscating exposure of the British press from the 1980s that, sadly, is as relevant now as it was then.
It was also, roundabout that time, the slogan of the “Times” advertising campaign. A few years earlier, the grand old Thunderer emerged from a long and damaging journalists’ strike to be snapped up by News International.
Last week I decided I’d run a little experiment. I’d pick a long running, dramatic and very important and contentious breaking story and I’d follow the coverage in all four of the so-called “quality” British dailies on line. That’s The Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph (informally known as the Torygraph for obvious reasons, and The Independent). Three of these are privately owned. The Guardian is run by a trust, which allows it to be the voice of progressive politics in England, at least compared to the other three. The Indy, as its name suggests, prides itself on its political impartiality – in fact, it’s pretty centrist. It’s also well-meaning, somewhat incoherent and, if its website’s reliance on recycled YouTube oddities and very old op-ed pieces is anything to go by, struggling. It runs a little 40p a day sister paper, the i, which I buy for the crossword. I happen to think it’s also very good value as a newspaper for that price, but this is incidental. It’s the puzzles wot count.
I cancelled my subscription to the Telegraph after the last General Election. I never expected them to be a beacon of progressive politics, in fact I read them to give me an opposing view because it can get a bit intense in the old Guardian echo-chamber at times. But e-mailing everyone who’d ever ticked a box on one of their mailing lists and actually telling them to vote Conservative was a step too far for me.
So last week, I dropped in as a non-subscriber, and found their coverage of the Greek crisis scrappy, frequently misspelt and generally unimpressive. Their rolling blog had no sense of drama or urgency whatsoever, which considering the nature of the unfolding events, is quite an achievement.
The Guardian, inevitably, was drawn to the narrative of plucky-little-Greece, the mouse that roared in the Eurozone’s corridors of power – and eventually, in the case of Yannis Varoufakis, out of them on on a powerful motorbike complete with blonde partner on pillion. I found their blog punchy, genuinely informative, compassionate yet mostly analytical, and above all, riveting. Though in all honesty, I think the coverage of the New York Times, Bloomberg, and the FT considerably better.
And that leaves the Times. Alone among the four, they had a paywall, but you get 30 days for a quid. In the interests of impartiality, I signed up.
The following comments will probably strike many readers as naive. Yes, I knew this was Murdoch’s paper. Nevertheless, I found the amount, and the tone, of anti-BBC material utterly appalling. Not only for its own sake. I never expected Murdoch, or indeed the sainted Guardian, to be completely unbiased. What horrified me is that on the Sunday the Greek banks closed and the referendum was declared, their priority was a long article telling people how to avoid the licence fee completely by downloading exclusively from iPlayer and watching content online.
Such blatant self-interest frankly makes me despair of the British press. At least the Sun and the Star cheerfully admit they’re the scum of the earth. The Times have a couple of columnists worth a look, and in fairness they published an intelligent analytical piece by John Humphries, whose son lives in Greece. But any hope I had that News International regard the Times as anything other than a political megaphone for their own interests was very quickly banished.
If they ever do manage to shut down the BBC, God help us all. Already I am turning to overseas newspapers for intelligent coverage of just about anything, including my own country’s politics. The Economist also deserves an honourable mention.
Have you ever wished you were better informed? Billy Bragg moaned that the English papers were Tory. At least that can be called some sort of principled position. Most aren’t even that these days.