Peter Wilby: What it means for the press

Peter Wilby on Sachsgate: With its coverage of the Brand/Ross affair, the Mail has provided a masterclass in leading the agenda

The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Tuesday November 4 2008

The Mail's parent company no longer has a stake in the commercial radio group GCap. Global Radio took over GCap earlier this year

Last week may have seemed just another in the long decline of print.

In America, Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher (and owner of the British Newsquest), proposed to lay off 10% of its workforce; Time Inc proposed to cut 600 jobs; the Christian Science Monitor dropped daily print publication. Here, the Wolverhampton Express and Star, the highest-selling regional paper, announced 10% cuts while Express Newspapers tried to persuade more than half its subeditors to volunteer or redundancy.

But, in one respect, every newspaper employee in Britain should have felt a little bit more cheerful and positive about the future last week. Not for the first time, the Mail showed that, in this country at least, newspapers can still lead the news agenda and alter the national mood. The resignations of Russell Brand and Lesley Douglas, and the suspension of Jonathan Ross were a triumph both for the Daily Mail and its Sunday sister and for the papers' distinctive and, in many ways, quaint worldview. What is remarkable is not just that the Brand-Ross broadcast went unnoticed for seven days, but also that, even last Monday morning, after the Mail on Sunday had broken the story, most newsdesks still didn't see it as a big deal. The Guardian, Mirror and Express were among the papers that didn't follow it. The Sun put it on page 3, a sign that it rated it an entertaining curiosity and just another example of bad taste from a familiar quarter.

Even the Mail - perhaps reluctant to go overboard on a story broken by a Sunday in the same house - didn't make it the splash, though it ran a front-page picture of Brand and inside, Melanie Phillips gave her usual imitation of a Victorian dowager who has overdosed on laudanum. Ross and Brand, she raved, were guilty of "cruelty and indeed sadism" and their behaviour was "bordering on the psychopathic". Her column attracted 209 comments (mostly anti-BBC) on the Mail website, the Sunday story 220 - numbers well above average. The Mail scented blood.

Any MP able to string "lewd", "offensive" and "disgusting" into a coherent sentence was pursued for comment. "Sack them!" screamed the Mail's front page on Tuesday. The paper kept its teeth in the story to the end of the week, running a leader each day, and highlighting more examples of how the BBC was outraging "decent people", such as a show last week that made a "disgracefully foul" joke about the Queen. On Friday, Richard Littlejohn hailed "a stunning victory over self-appointed, self-obsessed metropolitan narcissists who control so much of our public life".

Yes, I know. The Mail is hypocrisy on stilts. It claimed to find the broadcast offensive and hurtful to a 78-year-old man, but it ran the YouTube video of it on its website. It denounces cruelty and sadism while highlighting the tiniest physical flaws of anyone in the public eye, particularly women. It demands BBC heads should roll, but no Daily Mail executive was sacked when it was among 11 papers forced to apologise and pay damages to Robert Murat and two others over the Madeleine McCann case. It has a long-standing vendetta against the BBC but rarely mentions that its parent company has a stake in GCap, the UK's leading commercial radio group.

Nevertheless, every editor - whatever his or her politics or position in the culture wars - can learn from the Mail's single-mindedness. Many young people adore Ross and Brand and won't thank the paper for hounding them off the airwaves. The Mail doesn't care. It reliably sets its face against what it sees as modish and insincere. It offers a view of the world - that everything has gone downhill since the 1950s, when women stayed in the kitchen, sex was saved for marriage and homosexuality was shameful - that is now rarely found elsewhere, not even in the Telegraph as that paper strives for a younger, trendier audience. It understands that one of a newspaper's functions is to give its readers a sense of security, belonging and simple values in an increasingly complex and unsettling world. The Mail is a supremely confident paper. Where others, trimming to focus groups, muffle their message, the Mail projects it relentlessly, and with great technical skill, from almost every page.

The great strength of the British press is that it has a range of papers, each with its own character and identity. That explains why radio "shock-jocks" and internet bloggers don't have anything like the influence here that they have in America, where most newspapers are bland, characterless and cautious.

If they are to survive, British papers need to preserve and develop their individuality. The Mail, in the past week, has shown them how.


Peter Wilby

The GuardianTramp

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