Future tense but press powers on

Towards the end of 2010, an Australian-based futurist - the sort who starts firms with names such as Advanced Human Technologies - predicted the extinction of US newspapers by 2017 and of UK newspapers by 2019. Elsewhere, the press will limp on a little longer but it will be small comfort to British hacks that, until 2038, they can still seek employment in Mongolia. Each month, national newspaper sales figures seem to confirm such forebodings: down nearly 6 per cent in a year (more than 11 per cent for the upmarket papers) and nearly 24 per cent in a decade. In the course of 2010, Trinity Mirror's three national papers made a quarter of their journalistic staff redundant.

Yet newspapers continue to set the agenda of public debate and break political careers. The fallout from the MPs' expenses scandal, emblazoned across Daily Telegraph front pages in summer 2009, was still evident during the May general election, and not only because some familiar names didn't stand again. According to the customary "Nuffield study" of the election, MPs standing for re-election did worse if they were personally implicated in the scandal.

Within days of the coalition government's formation, the Telegraph struck again, bringing down the Lib Dem chief secretary to the Treasury, David Laws - the man entrusted with taking the biggest axe to public spending since the Second World War - with more tales of expen­ses malpractice. It took another, if more modest, scalp later in the year when the government adviser David Young resigned after telling the paper that, in "this so-called recession", most of us had "never had it so good".

Coulson and the gang

For all the warnings of declining sales, press headlines continue to obsess politicians and influence the running order of TV and radio news. Though distinctive voices are emerging on the internet, none yet commands the breadth of readership and engagement achieved by even the lowest-circulation national papers. David Cameron's media operation is led by a former tabloid newspaper man, as Tony Blair's was. And despite allegations throughout the year that Andy Coulson, when News of the World editor, gave a green light to illegal phone-hacking, Cameron was under no compelling pressure to fire him. One reason was that the press itself - half of it controlled, as the NoW is, by Rupert Murdoch's News International, the other half mostly anxious not to provoke retaliation - covered the story sparingly and, most uncharacteristically, calmly.

Professional sport had even greater reason to fear the press in 2010. The Sunday Times, along with the BBC's Panorama, put paid to England's World Cup bid with allegations of corruption at the international ruling body, Fifa. Pakistan's cricketers, touring England in the summer, were alleged by the News of the World to have fixed some aspects of their matches at the behest of betting syndicates. John Terry lost the England football captaincy after newspapers published stories about his private life. When red-top papers alleged that Wayne Rooney had slept with prostitutes, his club manager, Alex Ferguson, claimed that the scrutiny was damaging his game.

The WikiLeaks postings of hundreds of thousands of secret US government documents suggested a future in which the pace of disclosure will be set by the internet. But to amplify, analyse and contextualise its treasure trove, WikiLeaks turned to three long-established newspapers. Without experienced and expert journalists to sift truly significant nuggets from the ramblings of diplomats writing their weekly letters home, the disclosures, far from threatening the conduct of politics, diplomacy and security, would probably have caused no more than a few ripples.

The election, too, showed the picture is more complex than regular funeral orations for the conventional media allow. This was predicted to be "the first internet election" because it was the first in which a clear majority of UK households had internet access, rather as a clear majority had TV sets for the first time in the "first television election" of 1959. Some politicians aspired to emulate Barack Obama's use of networking sites, which helped him win the 2008 US presidential election. In fact, the internet played at best a supporting role in Britain.

Extinction unlikely

The entire election, to an extent none of the parties anticipated, hinged on the leaders' televised debates. Moreover, this was distinctly old-fashioned TV. Each lasting 90 minutes - and free from filmed sequences, computer graphics and spontaneous audience intervention - the debates could easily have taken place, albeit without the pictures, in 1945, when radio first played a role.

The press, too, played its part, announcing the "winner" of each debate the following morning and embarking (admittedly without conspicuous success) on sustained denigration of the early leader, Nick Clegg.

Newspapers' greatest dilemma was no nearer resolution at the end of 2010 than at the beginning: how to make themselves commercially viable once more. Murdoch's decision to charge for online access to the Times, the Sunday Times and, more improbably, the News of the World, was not immediately successful. Yet even the financially weakest paper, the Independent, somehow survived and the London Evening Standard made an unexpected success of its transformation into a freesheet.

The ten national dailies sell over nine million copies on an average day, and the Mail, Guar­dian and Telegraph alone can claim daily online audiences of more than six million. Perhaps the newspaper of 2019 will be read on an iPad, a Kindle or something yet uninvented, but extinction seems unlikely.l

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special