It's big, but is it any good?

Media - Bill Hagerty asks if <em>Sunday Times</em> readers have noticed that it is now an outsized t

In an issue of one of Britain's most successful newspapers, randomly selected, the modern tabloid mix shouts its presence. A front-page scaremongering story about school-age murderers, a nude portrait on page 3 and, inside, a gay sex scandal, as well as a story and a feature, each illustrated with a picture of a woman's bottom. No wonder that, for millions, the paper is as much a part of the Sabbath as the lunchtime roast. Well done, the Sunday Times.

Those puzzled by the continuing circulation success of Rupert Murdoch's British pride and joy have presumably failed to notice that its editorial voice has changed. A once distinctively upper-middle-class accent has slowly metamorphosed into man-in-the-street, cor-blimey tones more associated with its in-house red-top cousins, the Sun and the News of the World.

This dumbing-down has been so subtle that the paper's traditional readership has remained impervious to it. It is so weighty in reputation and, indeed, sheer bulk - most recently, 13 different bits and pieces, if one includes the Appointments section - that a large proportion of the intelligentsia considers the paper to be required reading.

One dare not miss the Sunday Times, believe many movers and shakers in politics, business and the media. Yet, despite its £1.10 cover price and its relentless climb up a circulation mountain that, for many other titles, continues to crumble under their feet, the Sunday Times has become a twopenny-halfpenny title.

Insiders say that the editor, John Witherow, is concerned about the lack of substantial stories provided by his newsdesk, and understandably so. That front-page story about school-age murderers was headed: "70 young killers will be freed early". As with so much tabloid tub-thumping, it was not quite what it seemed.

The paper reported that "many of the most brutal young criminals in Britain are expected [my italics] to be freed early following the release of the killers of James Bulger". The new Home Secretary was "said to be concerned" about the public reaction to the release of large numbers of child killers, as well he might be, following the near-hysteria over the Bulger boys. And such overblown stories as this will do nothing to ease David Blunkett's mind.

Long gone are the days when, under the direction of Harry Evans, the Sunday Times and, in particular, the Insight team, set new standards in investigative reporting. Later, with the scarcely remembered Frank Giles at the helm, and then Andrew Neil - destined to be always in Evans's shadow, but an editor who knew a big story from a can of beans - the paper was genuinely unmissable.

No longer. The issue I picked out was memorable mostly for Lucian Freud's nude portrait of a pregnant Jerry Hall (a natural illustration for the page 3 story about Freud's Golden Jubilee painting of the Queen!), a woman baring her naked bottom to the camera ("Hen-night bans come in to stop 'ladette' louts") and a Style section cover featuring a back-shot of another (clothed) woman, together with the headline: "The bum deal". These suggest that the Sunday Times is not exactly at the cutting edge of serious Sunday journalism. So does "Tory leadership candidate pens gay thriller", a story revealing that Iain Duncan Smith's "quite fruity" thriller features a gay affair, "which will certainly raise eyebrows". How did the Sun let that one slip by?

What else does the Sunday Times have to offer? John Humphrys's op-ed column most weeks proves he is a consummate broadcaster who hasn't yet got the hang of being vituperative in print. He does not excite. Melanie Phillips, on the same page, is a fine writer, yet her column rarely fizzes with the kind of arguments illuminating enough to refresh subjects often already wilted by overexposure elsewhere. Her agenda is too narrow, her responses predictable.

As for Atticus, Jasper Gerard's snippets of political gossip no more than mildly entertain under a masthead that, during several periods in the paper's evolution, presented a column containing stories and comment sharp enough to lacerate fingers.

Among the welter of sections that must test the metal of even the most gaping letter boxes, when home-delivered, there are lashings of the all-purpose A A Gill, but not much else to enthral. Even the magazine, once a ground-breaker that changed the face of the Sunday papers, now offers little that one cannot find elsewhere, and often appears to consist mostly of Bryan Appleyard filling acres of space to separate the motorcar advertisements.

Any tabloid would have jumped at a news feature in a more recent issue of the paper. "That 18-hour binge: the truth about me, Chris and Jack the cleaner" had the restaurateur Aldo Zilli recalling times on the toot with Britain's bad-boy zillionaire, and observing of Evans: "I believe the only reason people say terrible things about Chris is because he is honest and upfront and few people can deal with that." Pardon?

But Michael Winner's farewell to "old friend" Jack Lemmon - "He was assuredly one of the greats, both as a person and as an actor" - was strictly Hello! and OK! material. The tabloids would have found it too flesh-creepingly ghastly for inclusion.

Most weeks, the Observer sees off the Sunday Times without breaking sweat, and the redesigned Independent on Sunday is already showing signs that, in quality if not size, it can take on the big boys. If there is any justice - ludicrous though the thought may be - the Sunday Times should get found out by the habit buyers who regularly either discard many of the paper's sections as soon as they can, or leave them lying around their homes, silent witnesses to the rape of forests.

Until then, the world's biggest tabloid marches on.