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

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.