A new newspaper has just dropped on my desk. It is called the North West Enquirer, a quaint title which, to me, conjures up small-town America and chain-smoking reporters in trilby hats. It is published weekly in Manchester as a tabloid of 80-plus pages. The layout and typography are clean and simple, if unoriginal. I wish it well, and I would love to say it will be a roaring success, correcting the London-centric bias of the British media and reversing the decline of the regional press. Alas, I expect it to fail.
Manchester used to be a thriving newspaper centre; nearly every national paper had an editorial office there, publishing a separate edition, and Granada, based there, was a star of the ITV network. Now, even what was the Manchester Guardian has only a vestigial presence, while Granada has been absorbed into Carlton.
The Enquirer, however, detects a gap in the market. The north-west, defined as stretching from Cheshire to the Scottish border and from North Wales to the Pennines, has 1.3 million AB adults. Surely 15,000-20,000 (the Enquirer's circulation target) will pay £1 a week for a paper that looks "at regional issues through regional spectacles".
People have long argued that the national press is too metropolitan and should provide more regional coverage. The truth is that the English care about only two places: the town or city where they live, and London. Liverpudlians have no interest in the doings of Mancunians, or vice versa. The inhabitants of Sunderland do not care what happens in Leeds. All are interested in London.
The reason is simple. London, by far the largest UK city, is the political, administrative, business, financial, publishing, arts and broadcasting capital. Nowhere else in England is the capital of anything. Sending bits of the civil service or the odd quango out of the metropolis won't change that. The National Curriculum, when the Tories started it in the 1980s, was run from York. Everyone complained that its rulers were out of the loop. Now they reside in Piccadilly, London.
Only Scotland, with its parliament, has broken this pattern. Most UK-wide newspapers now publish separate Scottish editions. Given that the indigenous Scottish press - the Scotsman and the Herald, for example - is thereby weakened, even this may be taken as further evidence of centralisation. The effect on England, meanwhile, is to make Scotland disappear. The London editions publish far less Scottish news than they did a decade ago. To most English readers, Scotland has become a country more mysterious than Uzbekistan. I doubt that one in 20 could name the Scottish First Minister; I'd expect more to know the names of the French president or German chancellor.
There is no chance of any English region developing a similarly distinct identity. Proposals for elected regional assemblies have created little interest. The citizens of Liverpool, Preston and Carlisle would rather be ruled by London than by Manchester. My home town of Leicester in the East Midlands would hate to be ruled from Nottingham.
England is the most centralised country in Europe and, whatever ministers say, it is becoming more so. True, the BBC plans a significant expansion in the north-west and some think this could be the basis for a "media city" in Manchester or Salford. But media workers are obsessive about keeping "in touch" and will be more interested in London than in the north-west.
That is why daily papers such as the Yorkshire Post - and Yorkshire, of all places, ought to have a distinct identity - barely cling to life. The North West Enquirer might succeed if it had something to report on. Unfortunately the north-west, like the rest of regional England, doesn't exist.
Fleet Street's love affair with Tony Blair is almost over. The Sun, though it continues to prefer Blair to Gordon Brown, makes increasingly ominous comparisons with John Major. On 6 May, for example, its front-page headline was "Now we're ALL being screwed by Prescott", following the news that the Deputy Prime Minister will keep his salary and perks despite losing his department. It didn't need to remind us of the echo of "Now we've ALL been screwed by the cabinet", used after Black Wednesday in 1992. But it did.
One paper, however, remains firmly in the Blair camp. The Observer's leader hailed "the efficiency" of the PM's reshuffle, which had reinforced "his reputation as a politician and a strategist". Brown appeared "both graceless and uninspiring, a vulture standing on the sidelines". Elsewhere in the paper, Denis MacShane - who remains touchingly devoted to Blair despite being sacked as a minister last year - berated Labour MPs who wanted to remove "the most successful head of government in the west".
Some may see this as foolish backing for a lost cause, providing further evidence that Roger Alton, the Observer's editor, lacks political insight. But in a fickle world, I think Alton should be commended for his constancy.