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30 October 2019

First Thoughts: The Barclay Brothers, scrapping SUVs and Britain’s sporting prowess

Once respected for its wide-ranging news coverage, the Telegraph became a sectarian, propagandist rag under the Barclays.

By Peter Wilby

Nobody should mourn the decision of the twin brothers David and Frederick Barclay to sell the Daily Telegraph and its Sunday sister. Though always diehard Tory in opinion, the Telegraph was once widely respected for the range and accuracy of its news coverage. Under the Barclays, it became a sectarian, propagandist rag, closer in tone to the Daily Mail than to the Times or the Guardian.

In 2004, when the Barclays took over, it was comfortably the market leader among posh papers, selling 250,000 more than the Times. Now the Times has a higher circulation. The Barclays hired a new management team from the Mail, apparently hoping to imitate the latter’s success by going downmarket.

They failed: in 2004, the Telegraph’s circulation was a third of the Mail’s, now it is a quarter. Managers insisted they were preparing for the new digital age. That failed, too. According to the latest figures, the Telegraph’s total readership (print and online) is behind even the online-only Independent. It is also behind the Mail, the Times and Guardian in the time anybody spends reading its drivel.

The sooner this record of unmitigated failure comes to an end, the better.

Oborne walks

Among the many journalists the Telegraph drove away was Peter Oborne, a church-going Tory who writes with what has been called “rococo exuberance”. He left in 2015, accusing it of suppressing disobliging stories about advertisers such as HSBC, Tesco and Cunard. Now, after accusing the Mail on Sunday of publishing “fake news” fed to it by Downing Street – and criticising several other papers, plus the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg and ITV’s Robert Peston – he has given up his Daily Mail political column.

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Oborne often says the unsayable – about, for example, British hostility to Muslims and the influence of Britain’s “pro-Israel lobby”. This year, he criticised the media for treating the WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange as “a pariah”. From leaked diplomatic files, he argued, Assange produced “stonking good stories, each and every one in the public interest”, just as the Mail on Sunday revealed leaked cables about what Britain’s Washington ambassador thought of President Trump. But, Oborne wrote, “unlike the Mail on Sunday, Assange puts no spin on his leaks”.

You will not find this brave journalist’s best work, such as his “fake news” piece, in mainstream newspapers but on, for example, the Open Democracy website. That speaks volumes about the British press.

Monstrous trucks

Here’s an example of why I don’t think governments take global heating seriously. Sport utility vehicles (SUVs), the International Energy Agency reveals, are the second largest contributor to the increase in global carbon emissions since 2010, ahead of heavy industry and far ahead of aviation. Sales of these monstrosities rise constantly. They now account for 40 per cent of annual car sales against 20 per cent a decade ago. The average emissions for an SUV are around 10 per cent more than those for other cars.

It would be simple – and good for road safety – to ban new SUV sales and offer compensation to owners who scrap them. No government, so far as I know, has even considered this. Do we have a climate emergency or not?

World beaters

England’s rugby union team beat New Zealand in the World Cup semi-final. This doesn’t happen often but, since the latter’s entire 4.8 million population is obsessed with rugby, the wonder is that it ever happens. Our cricket team won the World Cup, beating, among others, India, which has more active cricketers than the rest of the planet put together.

England’s footballing men are ranked fourth in the world, the women fifth. Great Britain came second in the medals table at the 2016 summer Olympics. Scotland’s Andy Murray has won three Grand Slam tennis titles in the past decade. Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy is second in the world golf rankings. Perhaps we British are better at sport, and less pampered by the welfare state, than we commonly think.

This article appears in the 30 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone