The coming of the Maily Express

It makes sense - the two newspapers have printed the same stuff with different fonts for a while now

Talk of a merger between the Daily Mail and Daily Express seems a mixed blessing for those of us who wouldn't ordinarily read either. While it might seem like good news to be rid of at least one of them, how powerful would the resulting über-tabloid become?

It's probably best not to fall into the trap of imagining the worst-case scenario – a monstrous great politically incorrect Death Star of a newspaper blasting out lasers of bile across the galaxy, journalists dressed in scary black uniforms . . . because that's exactly the kind of catastrophistic panic-porn those papers like wallowing in.

No, the reality would be more mundane, less scary. Instead of a gigantic, slavering right-wing chimera, a Brundlefly with a cruel streak for minorities lurking on the shelves in WHSmith, the Maily Express could just end up being a rather dull, mid-market tabloid grasping for the same waning readership.

Instead of two sets of headlines panicking about "them" coming over here and taking our jobs, there would be just one. At least we'd only have to avoid one publication, rather than two.

After the sudden death of the Daily Sport and Sunday Sportwhich leaves a gaping void on the news-stands for upskirt photos of minor celebrities and very little else – it would be another blow to the newspaper industry. Would it be a sign that the tide really is turning, and the inkies running out of time? Those of us who harbour dreams of having gainful employment through the purchase of printed words on paper might like to hope not, but what if this is the second domino falling over?

If the Express and Mail really did merge, I don't think the Express would end up tremendously well represented, given the relative size of its circulation and readership. Just as Spitting Image's David Owen puppet told David Steel their amalgamated party would have "one name from your party and one name from mine . . . from mine, Social Democratic, from yours, Party . . ." you can't help seeing the resultant publication as being anything other than the Daily Mail. That would be disappointing from the point of view of losing the Express name from the news-stands, given its history as Britain's most popular newspaper for decades; but then again, the Express of those days died a long time ago.

Of course, this is all just idle speculation. Why would the Mail want to do anything other than see the Express wither on the vine and die away as its readership gets older? Why would the Express want to admit defeat and couple itself to the Mail as very much the junior partner? None of that seems to make any sense, but perhaps there is some logic in it: with 2.7 million potential readers, any joint force would be in a healthy position.

The two newspapers have been pretty much the same story in slightly different fonts for a while now. It's a sadness, perhaps, that there isn't room for a Daily Express that is markedly different from its main mid-market competitor, but maybe that's just the way these things are going. Maybe we really are going to face a future with fewer national newspapers, and maybe we're just going to have to get used to it.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue