Newspapers always need to stay a few steps behind contemporary morality. This is not only because they wish to avoid gratuitous offence to their more old-fashioned readers, but also because they depend for their effect on contriving shock. To pretend shock at cannabis would put the papers too far behind the times, given that there can hardly be a soul left in the land who hasn't met at least one smoker. Cocaine, however, is ideal for the press.
Because the drug is now widely accepted in, for example, the City, the fashion industry and the media itself, enough prominent people are snorting openly enough to allow a constant stream of exposes. But despite an increasingly relaxed attitude among the public - according to the polls, a majority believes that a few youthful snorts should be no bar to the Tory leadership - a crucial minority still regards the drug as beyond the pale. Even among those prepared to tolerate cocaine, it is likely that most have no direct experience of it. In other words, there is just enough residual unfamiliarity and disapproval to allow journalists to continue feigning shock.
In the case of David Cameron I assume cocaine is what we are talking about. Yet the press coverage has been curious. Several commentators, particularly Stephen Glover in his Daily Mail and Independent columns, seemed to think cannabis was at issue. Since Glover argued that taking cannabis was forgivable - after all, several shadow cabinet members admitted to it years ago, and Glover had taken a spliff or two himself - perhaps he was trying to imply that cocaine wasn't. But why not say so outright?
There are other mysteries. Where did the London Evening Standard get its story that Cameron had been "helping" a family member with heroin addiction? "Friends" were quoted, saying that the "pain caused to his family . . . gives him an unique ability to understand modern life", which only made the tale look as if it came from the Cameron camp. The Standard's care not to reveal even the gender of the family member - it referred throughout to "the person" - was another pointer. But if Cameron thought his own drug habits should be private, why should any of this be public knowledge, even partially?
Cameron said he was "very proud" of his kinsperson's recovery from addiction. George Osborne, Cameron's campaign manager, used identical words of "my friend" who had recovered from cocaine and crack addiction. The friend had fathered a child by Nathalie Rowe (aka Mistress Pain), the "vice girl" who claimed in the Sunday tabloids that she had taken cocaine with Osborne. Osborne denied taking cocaine himself, but issued a statement about his friend. Though he didn't identify him, the Daily Mail did: he was an Old Etonian and grandson of a wartime Liberal minister.
The whole thing has whiffs of the Macmillan era, when it seemed half the ruling class was consorting with prostitutes and attending orgies. But Cameron and Osborne have created the impression they run a sort of outreach charity, rescuing upper-class waifs and strays from drug-induced ruination, and restoring their self-esteem. What Conservative Party members make of it all is anyone's guess.
Shouldn't the press, you may ask, be concerned with policy issues? That's the easiest question to answer. None of the candidates has said much about policy, least of all Cameron, whose speech at the party conference was entirely content-free. As the least-known of the candidates, he was anxious to project a distinct and pleasing personality. We now know (or think we know) a great deal about him. But we still know nothing about what he would do in office. As he probably doesn't know either, the press has so far served him well.
The Independent on Sunday may be the smallest-circulation Sunday paper - 168,503 paid-for copies at the latest count - but it is usually the biggest on impending doom. So, for the launch of its "compact" format, it naturally played to its strengths. Not only did it have comprehensive coverage of the dreaded bird flu, it also had a three-page feature on earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, asking: "Is this the end of the world?" Not yet, but remember you read it here first, seemed to be the answer.
Meanwhile, the Sunday Times Magazine was predicting "a new Dark Age". This was even scarier, because the Sunday Times normally assures us that, provided we carry on shopping, all will be well. A Dr Richard Duncan, of the Institute of Energy and Man (which, as far as I can discover, is just a front for Duncan's very eccentric theories), warned that, when the oil runs out, as it will imminently, "we will return to living in essentially Stone Age conditions" while John-Paul Flintoff saw us "foraging for insects in suburban gardens". Unfortunately, Flintoff revealed he is already preparing for the big day by boning up on how to keep chickens. This is surely a mistake in present circumstances and one that the professional doomsters on the IoS would never make.