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The death of the scoop, the Mail’s brilliant “Legs-it” pun and the milkman returns

Tabloid newspapers trivialise and sexualise almost everything.

Tabloid newspapers trivialise and sex­ualise almost everything. After a murderous rampage on Westminster Bridge, they publish a picture of the perpetrator’s teenage daughter “headed to a school prom night in a revealing backless dress” (the Sun), noting approvingly that “she has refused to give up her middle-class Western lifestyle” while her older sister “embraced the burqa” (Daily Mail).

Then, as Theresa May meets Nicola Sturgeon to discuss whether a 310-year-old union between their countries has a future, the Mail publishes a front-page picture of the two women sitting in above-the-knee skirts and shiny nude tights, headlined: “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” Nero fiddled while Rome burned; the Mail admires women’s legs while the UK crumbles.

Inside, below more full-length pictures of the two women and more excruciating puns (“skirting around the issue”), the Mail columnist Sarah Vine explains that “May’s . . . long extremities are demurely arranged . . . knees tightly together, calves at a flattering diagonal”. Sturgeon’s legs are “altogether more flirty, tantalisingly crossed”. It is, Vine warns, “a direct attempt at seduction”. Scots have a choice: “the reliable, measured . . . Mrs May” and the “safety” of the Union, or “a wild, dangerous leap into the unknown” and “a lifetime of regrets”.

You can call all this shameful, demeaning and sexist, and you would be right. But it is also brilliant: an example of political comment (or propaganda, if you prefer) wrapped in a package that many people will enjoy, laugh at and talk about. It is what tabloid newspapers do. They humanise news that most people might otherwise find dull and abstract. If you don’t like it, don’t read them.

 

Redtop or dead

Television and radio producers, however, do read them, particularly the Mail. So do politicians. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if they read anything else. The BBC featured the Mail’s “Legs-it” prominently on its online news front page and Radio 4’s World at One. The former Tory cabinet minister and Remain supporter Nicky Morgan took to Twitter and the airwaves to express her outrage, as did Jeremy Corbyn (“This sexism must be consigned to history”) and Harriet Harman (“Moronic!”).

The numbers who buy newspapers dwindle by the month. But nearly all online and broadcast news derives from the traditional press, which therefore sets the agenda. That is why politicians court Rupert Murdoch, the most powerful proprietor, and would court Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, and Lord Rothermere, the Mail’s proprietor, if either were at all biddable. No party leader of the past forty years has flourished without keeping the press onside. Ed Miliband, who bravely made clear his hostility to the Murdoch papers as well as the Mail, badly lost an election he ought to have won. ­Corbyn, whose clumsy public performances make him too easy to mock and whose team lacks anybody with understanding of tabloid newspapers, stands no chance.

 

A bigger splash

Britain’s tabloids are the world’s most successful mass-circulation papers; MailOnline has more readers than any other English-language website on the planet.

Their problem is revenue, with print sales down and advertising fleeing to Google and Facebook. So, papers are desperate to make an impact. The old-style scoop won’t quite do it because its gist will be across the web in seconds, with few acknowledging the source. To command attention, newspapers must give a distinctive twist to stories, with displays that become ever bigger, brighter and more outrageous, like peacocks’ tail feathers. This explains why papers are so shrill in their politics and so unpleasant to their opponents.

To get the full flavour of the Mail’s Brexit-supporting bigotry, and its spiteful personal attacks on Remainers, you have to see the real thing. Otherwise, it’s like relying on someone else’s account of a vital football match. You miss all the excitement.

 

Brexit bug

As I watched the BBC Question Time special on Brexit the other night, it struck me that we could still be in the middle of the referendum campaign. The arguments were identical to those we heard last summer. The Leavers still promise a glittering future selling our goods to Australia and New Zealand. The Remainers still warn of economic ruin, ten-mile queues at Dover and mass deportations of expat pensioners in Spain.

Here is my prediction. These exchanges will continue for the next two years. Negotiations in Brussels will perpetually teeter on the brink of collapse. The final session will last all night. Exhausted negotiators will emerge with a deal of sorts but nobody will agree on what it means. Leavers and ­Remainers alike will scream “betrayal”, both alleging that we are condemned to indefinite economic stagnation.

And then, out of the EU, we shall find nothing much has changed. We shall still do most of our trade with Europe; we shall keep most EU “red tape”; Polish plumbers and Romanian hop-pickers will still find their way here. It reminds me of the millennium bug. We were warned for years before 2000 that computers, unable to cope with altering four digits at once, would cause planes to fall from the skies. On 1 January 2000, nothing happened. Nor will it on the anticipated “independence day”, 29 March 2019.

 

No use crying . . .

Clink, clink! The once familiar sound of milk bottles being delivered to our doorstep before dawn. A new local firm claims to deliver more or less directly from the cow’s udder and pay farmers a fair price.

We wallow in the nostalgia of a classic bottle with its silver top which, during our 1950s childhoods, birds would peck. Then, after using the bottle once or twice, there emerges from the fridge a long-forgotten smell. The top has slipped off; milk has spilt.

I can’t help feeling that, somewhere in this episode, there’s a metaphor for Brexit. 

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 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.