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5 February 2017

Will Ukip soon have as many daily papers supporting them as the Labour Party does?

This week in the media, from Sarah Sands’s sauciness and a farewell to Alexander Chancellor to why size matters at the Guardian.

By Peter Wilby

Let it not be said again that the BBC appoints only left-wingers to its senior editorial positions. In her five years in the chair at the London Evening Standard, Sarah Sands, the incoming editor of Radio 4’s Today programme, was a firm, even slavish supporter of Boris Johnson as London mayor and of the candidacy of the then Tory MP Zac Goldsmith to succeed him.

But her editorship of the Sunday Tele­graph in 2005-2006 was more interesting. She tried to transform a staid paper into something rather saucy. She launched a magazine called Stella, which was apparently “founded on the pleasure principle”. In the news pages, she featured what must have been the first male-on-male kiss (between Sir Elton John and Pete Doherty) in either Telegraph. She devoted a page to an Austrian village called Fucking. (Ho, ho!)

Most remarkably, the letters page, for six consecutive weeks, discussed the beating of girls’ bare bottoms. One correspondent claimed that at “the Royal Naval School in Portsmouth” in the 1940s, she got “30 of the very best and I could not sit down for five days”. Another recalled “a barely credible 144” (pun intended?) with a 12in tawse. You don’t, or shouldn’t, want to know more.

Sands’s dismissal, after less than nine months as editor, followed in short order. Let’s hope that she fares better at the BBC.


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Owning the news

We may be about to reach the extraordinary situation in which Ukip – a party that is less than 25 years old and boasts just one MP – enjoys support from as many national daily papers as the 117-year-old Labour Party, with its 229 MPs. Ukip already has the backing of the Express, a paper that was adept at peddling “alternative facts” long before Donald Trump’s aides invented the term. Now it is rumoured that Arron Banks, the insurance millionaire who bankrolled the Leave.EU campaign and helped to fund Ukip, is mounting a serious bid for the Telegraph.

Whether the present owners, David and Frederick Barclay (rarely given a media outing without the adjective “reclusive” attached), wish to sell is another matter. The Daily Telegraph is still the market leader, with average daily UK sales of 436,000, against the Times’s 363,000 and the Guardian’s 158,000. Its annual operating profits are more than £50m. Despite its move downmarket in recent years, it remains the flagship of respectable conservatism.

But the Barclays, with numerous rounds of redundancies and frequent, even frenzied, changes of editors, have never shown affection for the property that they acquired from Conrad Black in 2004. Many of its better columnists and writers, such as ­Peter Oborne and the football correspondent Henry Winter, have left for rival papers.

Rumours of possible buyers (including the Tory peer Michael Ashcroft and the Independent proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev) have circulated for much of the past year. For all his faults, Black, being more engaged with journalism and more respectful of a traditional English institution, was a better proprietor. Perhaps Banks – the co-owner of Westmonster, a newly launched right-wing news website – would be, too. If nothing else, his support for “nearly 100 per cent” inheritance tax above £5m and nationalisation of the railways would cause some spillage of gin and tonic among the Telegraph’s Home Counties readers.


That shrinking feeling

Change may also be afoot at the Guardian. In an attempt to stem heavy losses, it is reported, it may soon become a tabloid, printed on the Times presses owned by Rupert Murdoch. This would allow it to dump its uneconomic Berliner presses that have not, as the former editor Alan Rusbridger hoped, started a trend causing other publishers to switch to the same format and contract with the Guardian to print their papers.

Rusbridger rejected the tabloid format because, he once explained to me, the paper’s public-sector job advertising would require 200 pages on some days, making it too unwieldy. Unwieldiness is no longer a danger for the sadly diminished Guardian. But why Rusbridger, the prophet of the digital future, wanted to splash out £80m on new printing presses remains a mystery.


Yesterday’s papers

Perhaps Rusbridger was taking the very long view. Old technologies, after a long decline, often come back. Vinyl records are booming, with three million sold last year in the UK, up 53 per cent on 2015. Now Kodak, detecting “a broad resurgence of excitement” about a supposedly obsolete technology, is restoring its 35mm Ektachrome film. Something similar, I predict, will happen to newspapers. Imagine: something you don’t need to recharge or worry about losing, and that doesn’t require a good signal. You could even use it to light the wood fires that are also resurgent. If Gutenberg had invented the tablet and Apple had recently developed newspapers, it would be no contest.


Charm and vitriol

Understandably missing from the obituaries of Alexander Chancellor, the former Spectator, Independent magazine and Oldie editor who has died at 77, was any mention of his period as an NS columnist. When I became editor in 1998, he offered me a media
column “full of malice and vitriol”. I eagerly accepted, being keen to recruit the kind of lucid, witty writer he exemplified.

The column was acclaimed, though it wasn’t quite as vitriolic as promised; Chancellor was generally more waspish in conversation than in print. He rang within a few weeks, however, to say that he had been offered a substantial sum to move it to the Daily Telegraph. My response was one of resigned disappointment. “You’re taking this very calmly,” Chancellor said. What, I asked, did he expect me to say? “Well, something like, ‘Fuck off, you mercenary bastard.’” I repeated his words and rang off.

But Chancellor, affable and amusing, was impossible to fall out with and I continued to enjoy, from time to time, the convivial lunches to which he was dedicated.

This article appears in the 01 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, American carnage