Expensive but indispensable: welcome to the commentariat

Press Gazette's editor gives his take on the magazine's top 50 comment writers.

C P Scott, the editor who founded the modern Guardian, said: "Comment is free but facts are sacred." But when it comes to the UK national press, comment is very expensive indeed.

For the February edition of Press Gazette, we compiled a top 50 of the most highly rated journalists when it comes to comment (rather than news).

And you can bet that the average salary of those 50 is well in excess of £100,000 a year -- far more than that paid to the humble hacks who uncover the actual stories that these journalists write about.

Our top 50 is based on interviews with 32 journalists who work in that field, and on consumer research carried out with a weighted sample of 1,000 members of the public.

Although we picked just 50, our research uncovered more than 150 full-time commentarians in the national media alone.

Those with a high profile on TV as well as in print fared best among members of the public. So, the petrol-loving reactionary Jeremy Clarkson was their clear favourite -- helped no doubt by his profile through BBC1's Top Gear as well as his columns in the Sun and the Sunday Times.

When it comes to journalists, the favourite was Simon Jenkins -- the former Times editor who defected with his twice-weekly column from the Murdoch title to the Guardian in 2005.

The number one overall? The Times columnist and regular TV pundit Matthew Parris, who was modest enough in victory to say that, in his opinion, Simon Jenkins is the best columnist in the UK.

When asked what the secret of a great column is, Parris, a former Conservative MP, said: "Honesty helps."

And asked what he is most proud of, he cited the occasional times that he has "come upon an opinion a little earlier than others", adding: "In particular, I never saw the point of Gordon Brown -- I never saw what was so brilliant about him."

Both the public and journalists were invited to name bloggers as their favourites if they wished, but few did. Only one out-and-out blogger/twitterer made the top 50 -- the actor Stephen Fry. Otherwise, national newspaper journalists dominated the list, reflecting the huge investment these titles have made in comment.

And interestingly, despite the huge growth of the blogosphere, our survey found that most Britons still prefer to consume their comment in printed form.

Some 38.1 per cent said print is their favourite place to read or view comment journalism, compared to 28.4 per cent who preferred finding it online, and 18.1 per cent who said TV.

In the digital age, where news is transmitted instantly, it seems that explaining what it all means may still be done best on the printed page.

You'll find the NS comment on the top ten UK journalists from our survey here and the full top 50 listing in the February edition of the magazine.

Dominic Ponsford is the editor of Press Gazette.

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.