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9 February 2010

Expensive but indispensable: welcome to the commentariat

Press Gazette's editor gives his take on the magazine's top 50 comment writers.

By Dominic Ponsford

C P Scott, the editor who founded the modern Guardian, said: “Comment is free but facts are sacred.” But when it comes to the UK national press, comment is very expensive indeed.

For the February edition of Press Gazette, we compiled a top 50 of the most highly rated journalists when it comes to comment (rather than news).

And you can bet that the average salary of those 50 is well in excess of £100,000 a year — far more than that paid to the humble hacks who uncover the actual stories that these journalists write about.

Our top 50 is based on interviews with 32 journalists who work in that field, and on consumer research carried out with a weighted sample of 1,000 members of the public.

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Although we picked just 50, our research uncovered more than 150 full-time commentarians in the national media alone.

Those with a high profile on TV as well as in print fared best among members of the public. So, the petrol-loving reactionary Jeremy Clarkson was their clear favourite — helped no doubt by his profile through BBC1’s Top Gear as well as his columns in the Sun and the Sunday Times.

When it comes to journalists, the favourite was Simon Jenkins — the former Times editor who defected with his twice-weekly column from the Murdoch title to the Guardian in 2005.

The number one overall? The Times columnist and regular TV pundit Matthew Parris, who was modest enough in victory to say that, in his opinion, Simon Jenkins is the best columnist in the UK.

When asked what the secret of a great column is, Parris, a former Conservative MP, said: “Honesty helps.”

And asked what he is most proud of, he cited the occasional times that he has “come upon an opinion a little earlier than others”, adding: “In particular, I never saw the point of Gordon Brown — I never saw what was so brilliant about him.”

Both the public and journalists were invited to name bloggers as their favourites if they wished, but few did. Only one out-and-out blogger/twitterer made the top 50 — the actor Stephen Fry. Otherwise, national newspaper journalists dominated the list, reflecting the huge investment these titles have made in comment.

And interestingly, despite the huge growth of the blogosphere, our survey found that most Britons still prefer to consume their comment in printed form.

Some 38.1 per cent said print is their favourite place to read or view comment journalism, compared to 28.4 per cent who preferred finding it online, and 18.1 per cent who said TV.

In the digital age, where news is transmitted instantly, it seems that explaining what it all means may still be done best on the printed page.

You’ll find the NS comment on the top ten UK journalists from our survey here and the full top 50 listing in the February edition of the magazine.

Dominic Ponsford is the editor of Press Gazette.