Fleet Street's maiden aunts

Newspapers have never been good at picking up and responding positively to major social shifts

The Observer's internet columnist John Naughton spoke the truth to the Society of Editors annual conference in Glasgow this month. Young people aren't buying newspapers, he said, because the press portrays them as "hateful, spiteful, antisocial" criminals. To that, I would add that newspapers portray the schools, colleges and universities young people attend as incompetent and ill-disciplined. With standards plummeting, according to the press, A-levels and degrees aren't worth the paper they're written on. Half the courses are in joke subjects.

School leavers are illiterate and unemployable. The only decent young people, apart from soldiers, are those killed or beaten up by the savage creatures who make up most of their peer group.

Then there's drugs and sex. You will find lots of pieces discussing the pros and cons of tobacco and alcohol, but cannabis and ecstasy are simply damned without reservation. Evidence that anybody under 18 is even thinking about sex - or being encouraged by teachers to do so - is taken as a sure sign of social disintegration. As for fellatio, news editors probably think it sends you blind.

A handful of columnists, such as the Independent's Johann Hari and Catherine Townsend and the London Evening Standard's Laura Topham, give an authentic hint of young people's attitudes and daily lives. But they are lone voices among what resembles a chorus of maiden aunts, circa 1953.

Newspapers have never been good at picking up and responding positively to major social and cultural shifts. As Roy Greenslade records in Press Gang, a history of British newspapers since 1945, their first reaction to the arrival of rock'n'roll in the 1950s was to condemn it. They scarcely noticed Bill Haley, Elvis Presley and Lonnie Donegan, and continued writing about Vera Lynn. Now, as Naughton says, the digital universe to which young people are migrating in their millions receives scant editorial attention. True, you can read occasionally about YouTube, Flickr and Second Life in the news and features pages. But I had learnt of all these from word of mouth and my own internet browsing long before the press bothered to notice them.

You may wonder if this matters. The average age of newspaper readers may be 54 but, with rising longevity and improved health in old age, most will be good for at least another 30 years. Moreover, the oldies have all the money. The problem for newspapers, however, is that the young are more attractive to advertisers because they spend more of what money they have and are also less fixed in their buying habits.

That is why nearly all newspapers have gone online, where the young hang out. But there is a flaw in this rush to websites and podcasts. If newspapers simply reproduce, in the digital world, the same crusty, ill-informed bundle of prejudices they express in print, they will fail.

Poppycock

Many readers probably think newspapers have flaunted Remembrance poppies on their mastheads since 1918. In fact, the practice began in the mid-1990s, though the Guardian, Independent and Financial Times refuse to join in, while our two liberal Sundays seem conflicted: the Independent on Sunday wore one on the 5th, but not the 12th, the Observer on the 12th, but not the 5th.

I have nothing against the British Legion, or against remembering the war dead, whose loss in 20th-century wars was, to my mind, more poignant because they didn't usually have any choice in the matter. But I can think of many charities that are as deserving as old soldiers and, when it comes to remembrance, I'd as soon think of the women and children who suffered nightly bombing raids on London's East End, to say nothing of the citizens of Dresden and Hiroshima and, more recently, Hanoi and Baghdad.

Jon Snow, the Channel 4 newsreader, was entirely right to protest against "poppy fascism", which makes wearing the wretched flower almost obligatory on TV. When everybody flaunts one, only a refusal to wear it has any meaning. The symbol is therefore devalued and begins to carry a baggage of bullying and xenophobia, rather like the Union and St George's flags. Besides, journalists should be resolute non-joiners, thus leaving open, in readers' or viewers' minds, the fragile hope that they might have something original to say.

The insistence on poppies might be called political correctness, if the term were not so widely and boringly used that it, too, is devoid of meaning. But the press commentators predictably denounced Snow for being PC, and upped the ante. In the Telegraph, Simon Heffer demanded that work, traffic and everything should stop at the precise moment of the 1918 Armistice. In the Mail, Amanda Platell wanted us to wear poppies all year round.

What the young people the papers are so desperate to recruit make of all this is anyone's guess.