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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear