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Hold the front page. No, really, hold a newspaper with a front page on it and cherish its existence. For if nothing else, the year from here can once again be read through the front pages of its newspapers. Against all millennial odds, we still have nine national newspapers (eleven if you count the Morning Star and the New European) that arrive in papery bundles every morning across this sad land to be sold for money in shops, read and then folded up and recycled, seven of them essentially right-wing and pro-Brexit, four of them essentially left-wing and pro-Remain. (I’m told the right-wing free-sheet the London Evening Standard is not virulently pro-Brexit, but I don’t see a lot of evidence, possibly because I never pick up a copy.)

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The cover above, from the Daily Mail on Wednesday April 19, is one of the most striking, memorable and terrifying of the year. Not because of the Maleficent-style Disney villainess who graces it, against funeral black, or the aggressive use of the words “crush” and “saboteurs”, but, in retrospect, the hollowness and hubris of its pantomimic pomp. By the 5 October, after May’s farcical, psychosomatic speech at the Tory Party Conference, where she was handed a P45 by the comedian Simon Brodkin, our newspapers were united in hilarity against her. Even the Mail had its cake and ate it, splashing on the PM’s woes but sugar-coating with a quote from toady-in-chief Quentin Letts, who congratulated “the old girl” for essentially not curling up into a foetal ball and rocking back and forth on the podium. The “old girl”? Surely her days were numbered?

But no. We end 2017 with the same ineffectual Prime Minister we started it with, albeit minus three disgraced confidants. May’s story is Brexit Britain’s story: a sleepwalk over a cliff, and a lot of repeated words and phrases that mean very little. If she has an ideology, it’s based on a pathological lack of compassion, despite her weekly visits to church. (Her recent response to the rough-sleeping crisis was typically callous and cold. I can only assume they don’t have homeless people in Maidenhead.)

After last year’s flurry of Trump covers, he seems to have found himself less than front-page news in 2017. The ones I’ve saved and logged this year have generally featured our beleagured Prime Minister, the ghost who haunts Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson’s netherworld and whose response to an opinion she does not like is to laugh, an action which her facial features are completely unqualified to pull off. Her resting expression is one of disgust in any case. As far as I can tell, she is only Prime Minister because, within her party, the notion of Johnson, Gove, Rees-Mogg or – call an ambulance – Hunt is too grim to contemplate, and even more likely to lose them the next election. (Also, because even with Momentum behind him, Jeremy Corbyn struggles to make a case against her, as he doesn’t want to be in the EU.)

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You have to admit, the Mail has an unceasing energy. It shouts louder than the Sun, and has more conviction than the Express, which, like a small baby, is easily distracted by colours and noises. Once it gets a chew-toy between its teeth – “Remainer universities”, Corbyn’s terrorist sympathies, the eleven “self-consumed malcontents” who voted against the party whip – it presses all the right buttons for that considerable swathe of readers who have swallowed a blue-passport, bendy-bananas, overnight-ethnic-cleansing Brexit and see it as nothing less than a return to a Britain that never existed outside of Ealing comedies, when friendly coppers blew whistles, old maids bicycled home for warm beer and women and the coloureds knew their place.

It only very occasionally drops the chew-toy, such as when it allows the insidious misogyny often propogated by female columnists like Sarah Vine to run amok. In March, the paper actually lost its mind over the fact that two powerful women had legs.

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The next day, Sarah Vine told her critics to “get a life,” which is as relevant as saying “Not!” You cannot accuse the Mail of not understanding its readers. This is what one of them says about the return of the blue passport:

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I should credit the anonymous Tweeter DM Reporter, who thanklessly collates Daily Mail comments for the rest of us to despair over without having to give an all-important “click” to the website.

We should be proud of our national press, cherish its continued place in the daily discourse, and even welcome its extremes. We should certainly support it by parting with money for it, rather than greedily consuming it online for nothing. But we shouldn’t always believe it.

 

A year in bullshit

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Another year of bad news, by which I mean news that was bad, and news that was conveyed badly, or with bad intentions, aimed at our lowest common denominators (fear, prejudice, envy). It’s sweet that the Daily Mail began the year calling the New Year’s Honours “TAINTED” because the Chief Executive of Ann Summers and Knickerbox, Jacqueline Gold, was given a CBE, and ended it with a bannered opinion by attack-columnist Sarah Vine in which the Honours were once again “tainted” by a successful woman being given an OBE, this time Victoria Beckham. It’s good to know that some things never change.

I won’t annotate all of these covers – I prefer to present them as a kind of “mood board” of the year, as viewed through the rheumy eyes of hate and business interests. When the Mail calls Tony Blair, after his chilling Chilcott testimony, “A MONSTER OF DELUSION,” the paper’s views coincide with my own; but on points, I generally feel nothing but revulsion for what the CAPITAL LETTERS spell out in the right-wing national press. Warning: even scrolling down this blog entry at speed and only glancing at the words might make you feel a bit sick in your mouth.

I tend to “collect” my favourite covers during the year, and it seems apt to hang them out to dry, not necessarily in any chronological order, just as they fall. Refrains will emerge, especially at the Express and Mail, which, on paper (which newspapers still are, for now), had a good year, with their preferred result on the EU and a rightwing president elected in the US. But still they wring their hands and clutch their pearls, oh, and hate women (especially the women).

Let’s begin with my nomination for the worst front page of 2016. It has it all: ideological self-interest, overstatement, a slogan that’s also an egregious pun (“BeLEAVE in Britain”), and a built-in full-page advert for itself, as the film Independence Day: Resurgence was released that very day and happens to be a 20th Century Fox Film Corporation production (whose parent company is 21st Century Fox, founded by Rupert Murdoch, who is it Executive Co-Chairman, as well as Executive Chairman of News Corp, which publishes the Sun). Talk about taking back control.

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The rest is wallpaper. They used to call it chip paper, but I suspect health and safety have put paid to that tradition. Maybe when we actually leave the EU sometime this century, we can repeal it and take back control of whether or not we can eat our chips out of newsprint.

Let’s start with a few damning indictments of Blair, one subject that seems to unite our entire printed media, and see where the capital letters take us.

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To finish, two delectable examples of the Sun failing to grasp the gravity of death, knocking out a truly pathetic and insulting vandalism of his own verse to mark the sad passing of Muhammad Ali, and hoping its “ordinary” readers would despise the hereditarily blameless son of the Duke of Westminster enough to treat him as a source of class-war entertainment while at the same time advertising his eligibility (“Good news, girls, he’s single!”), at a time when he will have still been grieving the death of his father.

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And finally … a rare instance of a national newspaper adjusting its prejudices in the full glare of publicity: when the Times was “advised” before its second print run that to completely ignore the victory of the Hillsborough inquest on its cover in favour of the paper of record’s “ultimate guide” to “status handbags” might be misconstrued as forgetful at  best, and at worst, a subliminal editorial line on the verdict.

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I fancy some chips.

Whatever | April 2009

Whatever | Trying to choose a newspaper
Hold the front page! Newspapers still matter!

WhateverPapersApril2009

I think my newsagent hates me. I regularly pop into his shop, but it is not to buy a Boost or a Lotto scratchcard; rather, it is to change my newspaper delivery order. Again. I fear he’s getting tired of re-inputting my latest fickle, print-based whim. I want to tell him … although I don’t think he’ll care … that I’m going through a media-life crisis. Those publications that have defined me for years no longer seem satisfactorily to do so.

I am a loyal subscriber to a number of publications, although I had to let the NME go last year when they stopped running anything over 250 words and, some years ago, I had to cancel my subscription to Your Cat when the same features about collars and worming started coming round for a second time. But I care passionately about which daily newspaper I take. After all, it says a lot more about a person than shoes or haircut in our increasingly promiscuous, mix-and-match age, especially when the only badges people now wear are company IDs round their Orwellian necks.

In London, with three separate daily freesheets in circulation, each as timorously gossip-weighted as the next, it’s a badge of honour to tuck a paper you actually picked out and paid for under your arm on the train home.

I was brought up in a Telegraph-reading household and have been a Guardian reader since the Miners’ Strike: as much a bid for undergraduate independence as wearing no socks or getting all the way through an Einsturzende Neubaten album. But I have, of late, been dallying with other dailies. Come the latest promotional period, when they all start to vie for the floating voter with booklets and Pizza Express vouchers, I began to shop around, weary of my beloved Guardian’s ceaseless manufacture of “personality journalists”, interns plucked from obscurity and offered a shot at the title, as long as they’ll mug for the lens and have wackily self-deprecating photos all over a light-hearted feature about whether haggling works in brothels or how to survive avian flu by living in a hole.

So, what the hell, I flirted with the Times for a few days – after first checking with Ben Elton that it was OK to buy a Murdoch title now. Altogether less concerned with attracting younger readers, I found it to be serious, literate, stimulating and non-hectoring, and its columnists more varied than the Independent’s (another fleeting ex of mine). But I wasn’t ready to commit.

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One Thursday in February, I bought all the papers, boosting their ABC circulation figures en masse. It made interesting reading. No surprise, the red-tops were identical, juggling that day’s two big celeb stories: the ghoulish Jade Goody Death Watch – cue: product placement of Hycamtin, the “miracle cancer drug” – and Carol Thatcher’s dismissal for comparing Congolese tennis player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to a golliwog in mixed ie. not all racist, company. The Mirror led on gollies being sold at Sandringham’s gift shop, as, with zero glee, did the Mail, whose editorial line was that Thatcher was being witch-hunted because of her mum (“Revenge on Maggie”) and the golliwog was an “innocent children’s hero.”

But while the once-xenophobic Sun found space for the opinion of Sunderland striker Djibril Cisse (“as a black footballer I’ve experienced racism in many different countries”), the Telegraph gave burdened white man Charles Moore the floor. His conclusion: that the BBC had “revealed its contempt for those who fund it” and was “culturally target-bombing” innocent racists (“I think Carol should start a Golliwog Club to defy the BBC ban and I think we should all join”). Sometimes, they make it easy for you.

The Guardian lifted its skirts in my direction with an investigative piece on corporate tax avoidance, which was all their own work and an actual exclusive. The golliwog story was downplayed on Page 8, although I feared one of their journalists would be blacked up in the next day’s G2 to gauge the public’s reaction. I had narrowed it down to two. Or three. I ordered the Times, missed the Guardian, then cancelled the Times.

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All of which may be irking my newsagent, but whatever the outcome of this battle for my soul, at least it will have ink on its fingers. On election day in November, copies of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times were selling out as fast as vans could deliver them, and Nick Ferrari, reporting for London talk station LBC made this stirring speech: “It’s enough to gladden the heart of an old newspaperman. Whatever you say about the Internet and everything else, people still like to hold onto a manifest product of the news.”

You can’t make an impromptu rain hat out of the Internet either.

Published in Word magazine, April 2009

Whatever | June 2010

Whatever | The Great Volcano Inconvenience
God help us if there’s a war

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Wanda Jackson, the 74-year-old First Lady of Rockabilly, was stuck in Germany and couldn’t make an interview on my 6 Music show; the comedian Sarah Millican had to cancel an Edinburgh preview I had tickets for at a North London theatre pub because she was unable to fly back from the Melbourne Comedy Festival; and my asthma was slightly aggravated for a few days. Welcome to my Volcano Crisis.

It all started when, in the early hours of Wednesday April 14, Shetland Islanders detected the smell of rotten eggs in the air. By the next day, like an errant child, Britain was “grounded”, as the sulphuric cloud of volcanic ash caused by the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland started pluming across Europe. The Great Volcano Inconvenience had begun, and nothing would ever be the same again …

Until the following Tuesday, when a BA flight from Vancouver touched down at Heathrow, the skies started to refill with metal birds and Sky started to fill with scintillating footage of ordinary people coming through arrivals halls looking a bit inconvenienced. Willie Walsh, union-intolerant CEO of British Airways admitted it would take “weeks” to resume normal service, but promised, “we will make every effort to get our people back home,” as if perhaps he really was airlifting refugees or troops, not running a £8.9bn business for profit.

During the Six Day Inconvenience, 95,000 flights were cancelled and an estimated 150,000 Britons trapped on holiday. I am not without sympathy for those who missed weddings, or lost money, or, in the case of the Kenyan flower farmers, had to sit and watch tonnes of roses bound for our Tesco Metros and BP Connects rotting under the Nairobi sun, but for the majority of us, it was lovely. Not a single plane In the sky for the best part of a week. As Stuart Jeffries hymned in the Guardian as he lay on the dewy grass at Kew amid magnolias and witch hazel, “The sky is filled with good news. One of the world’s busiest flight paths, that normally sullies much of west London with howling jet engines from 6am, is silent.”

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What prelapsarian paradise was this? On the Thursday, ITV suspended all adverts for the 90 minute duration of the first leaders’ election debate, merely adding to this surreal glimpse of a frankly more agreeable world. The word “chaos” reigned. Not actual chaos, just the word. Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles was stuck in New York. The Cribs, Delphic and Frightened Rabbit failed to make Coachella in California. Whitney Houston discovered that there is a lower ebb than appearing in the Bravo reality show Being Bobby Brown when she took the ferry from Holyhead in order to make a gig in Dublin. The Iron Man 2 world premiere was switched from the Westfield Shopping Centre in London to a presumably less rubbish Los Angeles. My friend Stuart Maconie, stuck in Venice, switched into travel writer mode and provided Twitter followers with a witty, illustrated commentary on his journey back to Mark Radcliffe by train, via Milan, Zurich and Paris (“Erstfeld station. The Didcot Parkway of the Alps”).

Come Saturday, when constant plane noise over my neck of London usually taints the summer’s first glass of rose on the patio, I’d stopped feeling guilty for enjoying the respite. A hyperventilating media and our glad-handing politicians had combined to turn the ash cloud into a new Dunkirk (“no-fly misery”), with Gordon Brown promising warships and the Daily Mail fortuitously selling World War II In Colour DVDs off the page. We Brits do not have a lot to be proud of these days, but we still have “pluck” and “resilience”, a myth reliably peddled in any self-started crisis. We certainly showed some world-class queuing with bags at Calais and Santander in our darkest hour.

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The clamour to present the Six Day Holiday Extension as some kind of duty-free 9/11 masked the real story: our perverted view of cheap and easy air travel as a basic human right. (Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, one telegenically stranded celeb, was rare in admitting that the experience of having to endure five unplanned days in Mauritius had made him realise that flying is “a privilege”.) I’m not the planet’s most assiduous green but I have read a lot of books on environmental matters, including a couple of particularly terrifying ones on peak oil, and it doesn’t take a genius to foresee a foreseeable future where there’s not actually enough fuel to support our decadent devotion to economic growth and stag weekends in Prague.

The Six Day Chillout – quickly blamed on overreaction by the “health and safety” brigade – was an unprecedented and glorious glimpse of a post-Ryanair world. Like the “marooned” holidaymakers, it was all brought home for me in the words of Samson Lukoba, legal and ethical trading manager at Oserian, a vast floral factory perched on the shores Kenya’s Lake Naivasha: “The British, they want flowers every day, even just for their houses, not necessarily for special occasions.”

This was a special occasion. As if choreographed by James Lovelock, whose Gaia theory it so beautifully illustrated, April’s volcano – or “vilecano” as it was anthropomorphically christened by the silly old Mirror – showed us a world in which we must eat tiny bags of dry roasted peanuts and get deep vein thrombosis at home. And grow our own bloody flowers.

Published in Word magazine, June 2010

A second opinion

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There are bigger, more globally grave stories in the news, but this one has gnawed away at me over all of them for the past four days: that of Ashya King, the five-year-old with an aggressive brain tumour whose parents, Brett and Naghmeh King, are currently under arrest in Spain after removing him from the Southampton hospital where he was being treated. I’ve attempted to engage in a dialogue about the heartbreaking story as it unfolded via social media, but keep encountering people who I’ll generously describe as fence-sitters.

My reaction to the facts as they keep emerging has generally been a visceral one: that of disbelief, empathy and anger. Anger that when the seemingly well-informed, well-prepared and determined parents of a sick boy remove him from hospital care in order to seek an alternative, less scattershot radiation treatment which is not freely available on the NHS except in very rare circumstances – a treatment they were willing to pay around £100,000 for – are criminalised for taking this step. The parents, and the most tech-savvy of Ashya’s six elder siblings, Naveed, seem entirely fluent in the power of social media, and have been posting regular YouTube videos explaining their position.

Although it’s ten minutes long – and what’s ten minutes compared to the life expectancy of a five-year-old with a tumour on his brain stem? – I have been urging people to view father Brett King’s key testimony, in which Ashya appears, apparently relaxed and well cared for in a hotel in Vélez-Málaga. (They’d taken him to Málaga – not “snatched” him, in the alarmist words of the first media reports – in order to sell a holiday apartment to raise the money to pay for “proton beam” treatment in the Czech Republic.)

Although, as the fence-sitters have been quick to point out, we cannot know the full, transcribed conversations that have taken place between the Kings and the oncologists at University Hospital Southampton, Brett makes a clear and non-hysterical case for why he and Ashya’s mother took the unusual step of removing him from hospital care. They used the Internet to research alternatives and the one they chose was not one based on crystals or cabbage soup but on conventional radiotherapy, which goes against what would have been the media’s preferred narrative: that the Kings were complementary medicine nutters.

That they are Jehovah’s Witnesses – a breakaway millenarian Christian branch that, by strict doctrine, refuses blood transfusion, or so I’ve read – was seized upon initially before the facts were known. It was during this cloudy period of speculation and kneejerk conclusion-jumping – a vacuum into which rolling 24-hours expands to fill – that the facts got away from us. But it seemed to me that reason was to some extent restored and hysteria averted by the first YouTube video.

Naveed subsequently posted this, to reassure those who would condemn his family’s decision that they did not make it lightly or without investing time, effort and money into ensuring Ashya’s normal feeding routine would not be interrupted.

In Madrid, which is 322 miles away from Málaga, where Ashya remains under armed police guard in a foreign hospital, Judge Ismeal Moreno ordered that his parents be held in custody for up to 72 hours while he studied medical reports and documents from the couple’s defence lawyer. Those who insist on blaming the parents will experience a weird sort of melancholic schadenfreude here – if they hadn’t “snatched” Ashya, they’d have been at his bedside in Southampton, instead of staring at the walls of separate cells in Madrid.

Again, although we can only know what we know, the family’s lawyer gave a statement denying that Ashya’s life had been at risk, and that he had been admitted to the hospital in Málaga “in a perfect state of health”. (Ashya’s brother Daniel, 23, was with him in hospital – thank heavens for small mercies in a case where very little has been shown, in my emotionally crazed and ill-informed opinion.)

There is still a chance that common sense will prevail and the family will be reunited after days of stress that none of them asked for. There was no “snatching”, there was “abandonment” (quite the opposite) and there has been no “neglect”, the flimsy basis of the arrest warrant and the threat of extradition. I asked aloud on Twitter when David Cameron would step in: he’s quick to get on the phone to Obama when the US needs our “military prowess” – why not a quick call to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy? Nick Clegg has weighed in today, coincidentally after the Daily Mail made it a campaigning issue, although I fear one needs political and/or moral weight to make “weighing in” count. Cleggs boasts neither.

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I hold no torch for the Mail‘s dirty tricks and grubby Victorian hypocrisy, but when it gets involved, politicians tend to be roused from their slumber. I’m no expert on the law, but isn’t extradition – an outcome that is on the table – basically about co-operation of governments? Though the Kings have refused extradition, surely some co-operation could resolve the matter before – and let’s not be coy – things deteriorate?

Unless Brett King is lying through his teeth, he was “threatened” with a “protection order” by the boy’s oncologist if he continued to push for the proton beam option and thus defy the child’s doctor – which would have meant (ironically) that he and Ashya’s mother would have been denied access to their son’s ward. That prospect seems to have driven them to act. They’d contacted the Prague clinic, but when the clinic contacted Southampton for the requisite X-rays and paperwork, the request was ignored. (Unless, again, Mr King is lying, or dressing up the facts. The fence-sitters will cling to this grey area until the story has been the subject of an independent review, I guess.)

Is it so wrong to air a gut reaction to a news story as it unfolds? I felt so sick about how quickly a child’s parents can be painted as neglectful, irresponsible criminals in a supposedly free society. Even if the hospital felt it was acting in the best interests of Ashya King, did it really have to call in Hampshire police so soon after discovering he had been removed? The first “breaking” media reports were of a “missing boy” who had been “snatched”. He was not missing. He had not been snatched. Assistant chief constable Chris Shead said in the police’s first statement on Friday: “It is vital that we find Ashya today. His health will deteriorate rapidly. Ashya is in a wheelchair and is fed through a tube. The feeding system is battery operated and that battery will run out today.” Clearly, at this stage, the police had no idea how well equipped the King family was, but no wonder the world acted with alarm.

I can totally understand Hampshire’s “damned if we did, damned if we didn’t” defence, but what I personally regard as a heavy-handed, panic-button reaction did not help matters, or contribute to the boy’s health. A European arrest warrant? Could they not have called the family to ascertain how much danger Ashya was in?

I’m not a parent. I will never be in the Kings’ position, thank God. But this didn’t stop me from feeling for them. Commentators have been saying, “It’s what any parent would do if they felt it was the best for their child.” I suspect the unconditional love for a son or daughter would trump all nuanced options, but I think the Kings should be applauded for taking such careful preparation before removing Ashya from care. (Naveed said that their mother was “by Ashya’s side for the whole month that he was in hospital.”)

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I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But since we all hope that Ashya’s health will improve, by whichever treatment his guardians decree and pay for, at least there is some common ground. Without the Internet (and some of us can remember a prehistoric time before it), patients were in thrall to doctors for advice, and took it, without question. The dissemination of information, while wildly unpoliced across a once-super highway full of potholes, means access for all, even we plebs who do not have the luxury of a medical degree.

But a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and that works in both directions.

It’s a bore!

Royal baby front pages

I care deeply about many things, as you know. But here are a few things, on this special day, that I don’t care about. I don’t care about the Royal Baby. I didn’t care yesterday when the news channels had whole teams of correspondents standing outside a private hospital, and a palace, and the village shop in a village, essentially covering nothing, as it happened. I didn’t care whether it was a going to be a boy or a girl, and I don’t care that it is a boy. It’s not that I don’t care about its health or happiness. It is simply the most privileged of around 2,000 babies born in Britain yesterday, and I wish health and happiness on all of them, because why wouldn’t I? They are blameless little individuals. But I don’t care that the baby born in the private hospital in London yesterday with the mad people camping outside is third in line to the throne. I don’t care who is and who isn’t in line to this throne, as this appears to be the 21st century and I simply cannot understand where there is a “throne” to which babies are entitled even before their umbilical cord is cut. I don’t care about the baby’s parents, or what they will call their baby, as I don’t know them or it, and it’s none of my business. David Cameron said that “the whole country” was “excited” about the birth, but since I know for certain that I wasn’t, then this is a misleading generalisation.

I don’t care that The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery will ride past Buckingham Palace to stage a 41-gun royal salute in Green Park at 2pm today. I don’t care that at the Tower of London, there will be a 62-gun salute from the Gun Wharf by the Honourable Artillery Company. I certainly don’t care that a royal gun salute normally comprises 21 rounds, increased to 41 if fired from a royal park or residence. (The Guardian seems to think I do, as that’s where I gleaned that information.) I don’t care that the Tower gets an extra 21 for the citizens of the City of London to show their loyalty to the monarch. I don’t have any loyalty to the monarch, past or future, as I didn’t vote for them. (Sorry, old Monty Python reference.)

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I don’t care about the “ornate easel” put up outside Buckingham Palace last night, upon which the foolscap bulletin announcing details of the birth to the world was placed (and which typed sheet of A4 is the single cover image of more than one newspaper today). On a spectrum of giving a shit, the mad people in the Union Jack hats saying things to BBC News like “Princess Diana is shining down on them” and that this was “the people’s pregnancy” are at 10, and I’m at nought. Did I mention that I don’t care?

I don’t care that the baby is destined to be the 43rd monarch since William the Conqueror obtained the English crown in 1066. (Or at least, I’m half-interested in the history that took us to this point, but not in the idea that it still has any bearing on my life.) I don’t care that the baby was delivered at 4.24pm in the exclusive Lindo wing at St Mary’s hospital, Paddington, or that the Duke of Cambridge said, “We could not be happier.” It seems to me that we spent most of yesterday fixated on the dilation of a woman’s cervix, which really doesn’t seem like something complete strangers should do.

I certainly don’t care that the most privileged baby in Britain weighs 8lbs 6oz, which is close to the national average. It’s the only aspect of the baby that is close to any kind of average.

Royal baby front pages

If you care, I do not deny you the pleasure that this birth offers. I am not trying to stop anybody caring, or having a street party, or giving a bow or a curtsey to the television. I’m just expressing a view which made me feel like an alien on my own planet when I walked into the newsagent this morning. (I was going to say foreigner in my own land, but of course, the foreigners are just as mad for it.)

I watched The White Queen on Sunday night. It was all about what life used to be like in the olden days when we had kings and queens and court and ladies in waiting and all sorts of crazy, antiquated stuff. I’m glad I live in modern times.

Whatever #1

Here – elliptically illustrated by another nice photo I found from the good old days – is the first Whatever column I ever wrote for Word magazine. It’s about the craze for giveaway wallcharts that was, in October 2006 when I wrote it, sweeping Fleet Street. The specifics may be dated, but many of my worries at the time, and the protectionist warmth I felt for the printed word, seem entirely relevant, and depressingly prescient. I’m not going to reprint all my columns, by the way, but I thought, for old times’ sake, the first one would be OK.

WHATEVER by Andrew Collins [originally published in Word, issue dated December 2006]

Why are newspapers going to the wall?

Back in that faraway age we now call “the 90s”, the newspaper market was still divided along the following time-honoured lines: tabloids generated their revenue through copy sales, broadsheets through advertising. One traded in quantity, the other quality. One played bingo, the other didn’t.

But the times – and the Times – were a-changing. While circulation across the board had been in decline since the 80s, “pagination”, as they say in the print trade over a bun and a roll-up, was up. (Spinal injury units were backed up with paperboys disabled by the Sunday Times, up from 178 pages in 1984 to 362 in 1994. That’s a lot of unread articles about the lost tribes of the Amazon and Zandra Rhodes.)

It couldn’t go on like this. Hence, the great price war. In 1993, a master of the blunt instrument, Rupert Murdoch slashed the 25p cover price of the Sun to 20p (undercutting the Daily Mirror by 7p) and the Times down from 45p to 30p. When the Telegraph responded with a drop from 48p to 30p, the Times plummeted to 20p, and so it went.

Three years of this grubby huckstering only proved that editorial excellence is irrelevant; that most punters will take their news from the lowest bidder (the knockdown Times had doubled its circulation by 1997, the self-anointed TV Quick of Fleet Street). Meanwhile, aggregate newspaper circulation was only up by 0.4 per cent. In other words, for all the deckchair-rearrangement, tabloids and broadsheets were still basically chasing the same bunch of readers.

The Guardian, lest we forget, did not lower its price during the 93-97 conflict, and yet its circulation held steady, proving that some readers are more brand-loyal than others, even those to whom “brand” is a mucky word. Which is why, as a dogged loyalist – and occasional contributor – it pains me ideologically to see “my” paper reduced to giving away CDs and DVDs as free gifts. But since broadsheets went tabloid, creating one big no-man’s land in the newspaper war, there is no room for ideology.

I think we can all apocalyptically agree that these are the last days for traditional electronic software delivery formats. Thanks to their ubiquity in bagged-up national newspapers, silver discs are even more devalued than when AOL used to post them through your letterbox. And just in time, since we’ll all be downloading our music and films next week anyway. It’s the entertainment sector’s closing-down sale. Fact: if the Mirror are giving you Carry On Christmas for free, it’s either old stock or an incentive to buy further titles in a range of reissues, usually advertised off the page as part of the tie-in deal. There’s no such thing as a free Naked Lunch.

If you can put up with the cardboard sleeve and the fact that you’ll never be able to find it again, The Wild Geese is indeed yours to keep for nothing. And if you don’t normally buy the Mail but did so exclusively to add this geriatric war movie to your collection, your custom has been successfully bought.

The irony of this “sampling” exercise (ie. grab for new readers) is that demographic bets are always hedged by the choice of film. Thus, the Independent preaches to the choir by offering its captive metropolitan trendies Roberto Rosselini’s Francesco giullare di Dio; the Sunday Times sums up its readership with Howards End (middle-class aspirational), and Ring Of Bright Water the Mail (would join Countryside Alliance if actually lived in countryside).

Like the arms race, the Great Silver Rush won’t stop until one of them blinks. In May, the Guardian switched tactic, inspired by the “roughage effect” of all those teach-yourself language CDs in rival rags. Its educational wallcharts – birds, sharks, fungi – proved promotional gold: new, dirt-cheap to produce, and no need to bag.

So what if the posters looked a bit murky and were educationally flawed, thanks to being bought in from a Danish company, The Scandinavian Fishing Yearbook. Birds Of Sea And Shore lacked a lapwing, one of our most common waders, pictured a Scandinavian eider and showed the speckled female Pochard rather than the more distinct adult male, with its beautiful chestnut brown head and pale back and flanks. (By the time of the Guardian’s second batch, a pathetic disclaimer was added: “This is a selection of species and not a definitive collection. It may include species that are not or no longer indigenous to Britain.”)

But we birders quibble over detail when cash registers are ringing. The Guardian was the only “quality daily” to increase circulation in May. The wallcharts worked their blu-tack magic, shifting 130,000 extra copies during birds-sharks-fungi week. Scenting money, the Independent did a blatant copycat set: British Trees, The Human Body, A Guide To The Weather – no, really – and a “life size” human skeleton (whose completion depended on you getting all five – clever!). The Mail was next to go to the wall.

Do these wallcharts say anything profound about us as a nation? That learning is the new rock and roll? No. Parents collect them for kids who’d actually rather cheat their GCSE coursework off the Internet. They are simply the spoils of war. But do as I do, and keep buying them, because the actual print apocalypse is being rehearsed in London right now, with two new “freesheets” locked in battle, forcing the Evening Standard to lower its price to … nothing. They can’t *give* it away.

Editorial excellence will count for nothing in a world where the newspapers themselves are the free gifts. Make a wallchart out of that.

Man covered in blood

This is a picture of a man covered in blood. The man is in the process of being killed. He is in pain. He is about to die. Don’t worry, though, he is a fictional character, Sonny Corleone, played by the actor James Caan, being made to look as if he is covered in blood and being killed using special effects in a film, The Godfather. This week, specifically Friday, the front page of every major national newspaper bore a picture, or pictures, of a man covered in blood. The man was in the process of being killed. He was in pain. He was about to die. He was factual and not played by an actor; he was Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, deposed leader of Libya, who was finally, and perhaps inevitably, captured and killed by rebel troops in his home city of Sirte on Thursday. The video footage from which the ubiquitous screen grabs were taken was shown on BBC News in the afternoon, over and over again. I don’t know if the footage was shown on Sky News, but I suspect it was.

This was a newsworthy image, from newsworthy footage, and its newsworthiness was never in doubt. Gaddafi was a dictator and he was killed by his own people (with a bit of bombing help from NATO) after 42 years in power. The uprising against him, and the sanctioned NATO assistance, tell us a lot about the so-called Arab Spring, which continues to rage across the Middle East and North Africa, and I’m not debating the need for the world media to cover this story in detail. It’s front page news in any year, in any decade, in any country, in any language.

What I question is the decision to run these gory pictures, in many cases blown up to large size for maximum impact. When I went to pick up my paper on Friday morning I was pretty offended by the sweep of bloody faces at my feet in the garage. Gaddafi is dead. Gaddafi was killed. Gaddafi was beaten to a pulp before being shot. We get the picture. But did we actually need to see the picture, without warning? I’m really only talking about the impact of the front cover images here, the ones that were on display in newsagents and garages up and down the land, where tiny children – and, hey, the adult squeamish – were likely to see them.

Clearly, none were more offensively framed than this one, but it’s no more or less than we’ve come to expect from The Sun:

I know, I know, the argument runs thus: this image of a bloodied, pre-death dictator was all over the internet within seconds of the footage being released by the National Transitional Council (they don’t sound much like a death squad with that name, do they?), so it would be a dereliction of journalistic duty for the mainstream news media not to follow suit and publish/run it. It is, after all, proof of a man’s death. And hey, it’s already out there. But there is still a difference between the internet, where many unpleasant images are just a click away from the eyes of users of all ages, and stacks of newspapers in a newsagent. It felt a bit like Snuff Day.

It felt to me as if it was OK to run pictures of this particular man in pain and about to die because he was a bad man. I’m not saying he wasn’t. But although the Sun went mad with vengeful bloodlust, it was no more exploitative than the other, more “respectable” papers really. (You had to admire the Express and Times, and I think the Star, who at least ran the picture small.) As Billy Bragg stated on Question Time the other week, human rights apply to all humans, and not exclusively to those humans that other humans have deemed worthy. Was there no dignity available for Gaddafi? Had he actually forfeited that human right? You might say yes. After all, when the body of Mussolini was hung on a meat hook from the roof of a petrol station in Milan in 1945, I expect these photos were sent around the world (albeit perhaps with a little less velocity).

As with my recent whine about animal rights, some of you may think me wasting my energy worrying about the dignity of a dead dictator. But it does coarsen our view of the world if men covered in blood, moments before death, are displayed across our newspaper covers. When I was at the NME, we debated long and hard about whether we could print the photograph of Richey Manic after his self-inflicted “4 REAL”. If memory serves, we decided against running it as the cover image, and only ran it in black and white on the news pages. It appeared, in full colour, inside the paper. But he was not dead. He was fine. This was 20 years ago, when competition with other media was less stiff, and newspapers were in a less of a panic about copy sales. I guess it took a brave newspaper editor not to run the bloody Gaddafi pic full splash on the front cover.

I’m not sure I always approve of the world I live in.

World of the news

OK, the news. Preamble: in 1999, I was writing for Heat magazine. Seems unlikely now, but when it was first launched by Emap – the publisher for whom I’d worked on Select, Empire and Q before I went freelance – it was not the epoch-defining behemoth of celebrity tittle-tattle and eugenics that it is today; rather, it was a typically middlebrow attempt at a British Us Weekly: a bit of everything under one roof. To give you an idea of how different it was in its first, not-very-successful incarnation, I was commissioned to write a 1,300-word double-page spread comparing books about serial killers (“Dahmer cooked and ate the bicep of one victim with salt and pepper and steak sauce: ‘My consuming lust was to experience their bodies'”), and another comparing books about war (quoting Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad at this much length: “The silence that fell on 2 February in the ruined city felt eerie for those who had become used to destruction as a natural state. Writer Vasily Grossman described bomb craters so deep that the low-angled winter sunlight never seemed to reach the bottom, and ‘railway tracks, where tanker wagons lie belly up, like dead horses'”). Confusion initially reigned about what tone the new weekly should take. It was on fire in the TV ads, but not in real life.

Anyway, I was dispatched to interview Chris Tarrant, by then a huge TV star again thanks to Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. It was a hugely enjoyable interview and I delivered the copy. However, there was a problem. I hadn’t asked about his estranged stepson. I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know he had a stepson, estranged or otherwise. But it had been in the tabloids apparently. And, sensing a certain lack of newsstand appeal, the editors of Heat seemed to want to move into a different realm. I was pretty mortified to have to go back to Tarrant’s PR and request a “top up” chat with Chris about this urgent matter that I had failed to ask him about on the day, too busy was I asking him about Tiswas.

Tarrant was, I felt, gracious in agreeing to a bonus 10 minutes on the phone. He was in the back of a car being ferried somewhere, and, forewarned, he knew I was calling about more personal matters. I apologised for what I was about to ask him, and explained that I was under the cosh, but he said fire away. This is what I had been instructed to ask, and what he said, and what was printed, in full, at the end of the subsequent interview in Heat (you can skip past it if you’re not interested in a TV presenter’s relationship with his stepson in 1999):

Your 18-year-old stepson Dexter told one of the tabloids last year that you had thrown him out, saying, “Chris was an egotistical pig who tried to buy his family’s love with money.” What went on there?

The bottom line was, he wasn’t thrown out, he chose to run off into the night because he didn’t like the idea of doing a day’s work. It was very hard at the time, particularly on his mum, very upsetting all round. He and I are now having a continued dialogue, we’re working towards a sort of amicable reunion. He made his protest like all kids at 18 do, but had no idea that it was such a ridiculously high-profile thing to do. It happens to half the families in the country, but unfortunately because he’s my kid it became a big deal. Dexter himself has been amazed, horrified and saddened by this huge public profile that he then got. He’s cool, I spoke to him yesterday.

Other than that, the press have been pretty good to you haven’t they?

Until Heat really. Those stitch-up bastards!

As you can see, he accepted his fate as a public figure with tabloid form with good humour and honesty. But I felt dirty. I was a freelancer, so I was cutting off a revenue stream, but I made clear that I was uncomfortable with this type of work, and I wasn’t asked to write any more profile interviews. As it turned out, the magazine turned a corner when Mark Frith took over the rudder and the launch of Big Brother decided the magazine’s fruitful fate. I was no longer required, and nor were my 1,300-word book pieces. (I guess the real irony of all this, is that David Hepworth and Mark Ellen were the launch editors – and it was Mark who’d sent me back for the extra tabloid content on Tarrant. Now, both of these men understand magazines, and Mark has a natural instinct for how to tell a story, which he uses when commissioning and editing for Word, but a more decent, honest, faithful and true pair of gents you would not meet. It does seem bizarre now that they started Heat. But they did.)

This was my first, last and only flirtation with tabloid journalism, and even then, at one remove from the real thing. It’s not my strong suit. I’m rubbish at getting the killer quote. If I ever have got one, it has been by accident. My interview style is to try to find some common ground and develop a matey rapport with my interviewee in the allotted time, which can sometimes lead to a relaxed enough attitude for enlightening stuff to come out. Most of the time, you just get a chat. I’m happy enough with this, but don’t come to me for a scoop. Leave that to the journalists.

As we speak, the profession of journalism seems to have split down the middle. On one side, we have the venal, unscrupulous, immoral, bloodthirsty, phone-hacking News Of The World scum; and on the other, the noble, investigative, truth-seeking, establishment-undermining Guardian knights in shining armour, who broke the phone-hacking story, and dragged it out into the open from the shadows of nepotistic self-interest and corruption. It is worth stating that not all tabloid journalists are scum. Not all journalists are tabloid journalists. And not all non-tabloid journalists are saints. Equally, not all journalists who worked at the now-defunct News Of The World were involved in illegal phone-hacking. But it seems fairly likely that journalists at other tabloid newspapers will have also paid for phones and emails to be hacked; after all, if it was common practice at one Sunday tabloid, it was probably on the menu at the others. After all, the newspaper market, in decline now, has always been pretty cutthroat. At the visible end, we’ve seen price cutting, bingo wars, spoilers and endless free CDs, DVDs, downloads and Greggs steak-bake vouchers; behind closed doors, far worse goes on.

“Tabloid journalism” is not restricted to the tabloids. Everybody’s after a quote or a headline, a line it can sell, whether it’s the Sun, or 6 Music News, or Radio Times. Tabloid mentality is endemic, and as the media marketplace becomes ever more frantic, attention spans more microscopic, and the meat on the bones of the available audience ever more scarce, tactics will get dirtier. Or maybe, now that the deletion of texts from a murdered schoolgirl’s mobile stands as the flashpoint for the current crisis of confidence, tactics will have to be cleaned up. At least until we’ve all forgotten about it.

Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks are merely the most public and most powerful faces at the centre of the current circus of death. It’s easy to hate an apparently vulgar old billionaire who effects dodderiness when it suits him, and yet rules one of the biggest media empires the world has ever seen, so can’t actually be that doddery. It’s just as easy to hate a jumped-up, Harvard-educated corporate automaton and heir, who speaks in a monotonous American accent and exclusively in legalese. And it’s even feasible to hate the woman who launched the “name and shame” campaign, even if that was the only alarmist stunt Rebekah Wade/Brooks ever pulled while editing a tabloid newspaper. They all claim to have been clueless, which is a counter-intuitive quality for chief executives of multi-million-dollar companies to show off about, when you think about it. I rather expect my bosses to know everything.

And when key News Of The World shopfloor whistleblower, Sean Hoare, is found dead – a death that is without suspicion in the same way that David Kelly’s was – it’s easy to feel a certain degree of sympathy for the reporters who were the last contact between their newspaper and a revolving cartel of seedy private investigators with loose morals and a tendency to go through bins. Hoare said that he and other reporters endured a climate of fear: get the story or else. The blame must go to the top. The bankers played with our money. The media moguls play with our heads.

But let us not think ourselves morally superior to all this. Or to absent ourselves from the morass. We’re all responsible for the culture that took us to this particular brink … unless you have actually ignored celebrity tittle-tattle since 1969 when Murdoch’s brand of lowest-common-denominator sensation began (“HORSE DOPE SENSATION”). I have never really been a tabloid reader in adult life. My Nan used to bring the Sun round our house on a Thursday, and as a teenager on the cusp of discovering sexism and Labour party politics, I used to flick through it for easy, “ironic” entertainment and funny things to cut out and stick in my diary with Pritt, like frames from the cartoonishly erotic Axa comic strip, and disembodied soaraway headlines. I would soon be under the Guardian‘s spell, once I got to college.

Ironically – and I don’t mean “with irony” – I bought the Sun pretty much every week for three years between 2008 and 2011 so that Richard Herring and I would have something topical to make jokes about on our weekly podcast. We also bought the Mail, but mocked both for their poisonous and laughable idiocy, and in our own way, I hope, atoned for the 20p and 50p we paid out for those rags. But I’ve also bought the Sunday Times for my own use on a Sunday because I like the Culture section, and on occasion the Saturday Times, because I like the books section (which I’ve sporadically written for), so I’m in trouble when it comes to the absolutist stance of the cancel-your-Sky-subscription lobby – most of whom, I fancy, pay to see films made by the Murdoch-owned 20th Century Fox, or buy books published by the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins, or watch ITV, in which Murdoch has a 7.5% stake, or watch the Murdoch-owned National Geographic via another satellite provider. (And if they don’t, I congratulate them. Truly. I avoided Starbucks for years after reading No Logo, and then I read that Naomi Klein occasionally uses Starbucks if it’s the only coffee outlet available, say, at an airport, so I calmed down.)

It’s been a hell of a week for the top brass at News International and News Corp. The latter’s bid to buy the remaining 61% of the shares in BSkyB is dust. Execs including Brooks, Andy Coulson, Les Hinton and Neil Wallis, have either resigned and gone home, or resigned and then been arrested and then been released and gone home. The toppermost of the top brass have been called before a Parliamentary select committee, beamed all around the world, there to squirm beneath the desk, get the words “humble” and “humbling” mixed up, dish out platitudes and apologies and denials in the same voice, and in one soaraway instance, almost get some shaving foam on them. (All the while, the Metropolitan police, who appear to have been up to their necks in News International appeasement, are shedding chiefs by the day, to the point that – gasp! – a woman might have to be drafted in to save them.)

It’s been gripping telly, and although the newspapers have been perhaps unnaturally biased towards coverage and analysis of just the one story while the Eurozone and the United States have been on the brink of economic collapse, again, it’s been engrossing to read. It’s ironic that the news is the news, and that the news has drawn people back to the news, whether on the news channels, one of which is 39% owned by News Corp, or in the newspapers. I don’t usually like to see 80-year-olds being humiliated on television, but I do like seeing the most powerful people on the planet humiliated, so I didn’t stay conflicted for too long on Tuesday. And as someone who also bangs tables when he’s making a point, I even sympathised when Murdoch Sr was told by his wife to sit on his wrinkled hands.

But we are all to blame, as I say. The celebrity culture, whereby fame can be achieved by selling a story, or appearing on a stupid reality show, or having breasts, makes mugs of us all. Even looking at the headlines of the Sunday tabloids while picking up our Observer – just to see, ha ha, what they’re frothing about this week, oh, it’s Cheryl Cole – makes us complicit, even if we don’t hand money over the counter. So let’s not be too smug here, unless we are truly without sin. I will say this: Piers Morgan must be squeaky clean if he’s prepared to challenge Louise Mensch the way he did on CNN on Tuesday night after she collated two passages from his book The Insider and made five, using Parliamentary privilege as a fig leaf for basically accusing him of phone-hacking during the hearing, which he denies.

Equally, you have to hope that nowhere down the line has anybody working for the Guardian done a dirty deal in an alley to get information at any point, otherwise its overarching smugness might too turn to albumen. (You have to hope that there are some good guys somewhere on Fleet Street.)

Rupert Murdoch’s empire seems unlikely to strike back. If it turns out that victims of 9/11 were hacked, then it gets really nasty for him back home, as the Americans done like it up ’em, and I think I’m right in saying that corporate justice is much more bullish over there. We’re giving Man and Boy a fair old roasting over here, even though the parent company is based in the US, and he’s not from round these parts. Maybe a world where media empires don’t exist would be a better one, although the one I do a lot of my work for, the BBC, is a global force to be reckoned with, and that’s why the rest of the media are so enthusiastic about bringing it down. (The deal the government did in 2010 after which the licence fee was frozen, necessitating redundancies and property sell-offs and the threat to bring back the testcard, was done, we must now assume, at a time when News International ran the country. The NUJ are certainly asking the question: can we look at that again, in light of recent developments? If it’s a battle between the BBC and News Corp, I know whose side I’m on.) I don’t think David Cameron will be gone by Sunday, by the way. We shall see.

Sorry, going on a bit. But it’s a big story, and I’ve been too busy to tackle it this week. Some once powerful men and at least one woman might go to prison over this. The Met are going to have to clean up their own back Yard. News Corp will surely sell News International, and another publisher will be delighted to buy the Sun at a knockdown price, which remains a very popular newspaper, and the Times, whose heritage and reputation cannot be knocked up overnight (but which doesn’t make any money, and whose courageous paywall has yet to create a domino effect through the British newspaper industry). But will “the culture” look any different when the fuss has died down? We live in a post-News Of The World world. But its readers seem to have simply migrated to the Star and the Sunday Mirror and the People, because millions of British people wish to be entertained and titillated on a Sunday. And a Monday. And a Tuesday.

Like boxing, if you ban stupidity, it will only go underground. And anyway, isn’t Google far more sinister and powerful than News Corp? Discuss.