Magazine article The Spectator

Whatever the Buzz, and Times Is Stuck in a Groove

Magazine article The Spectator

Whatever the Buzz, and Times Is Stuck in a Groove

Article excerpt


My colleague Stuart Reid has been urging me to write about the Times for weeks. `There's a buzz on the streets,' he says. `Oh, yeah?' 'Yes, people are saying that the Times is improving under its new editor.' `Really?' 'Yes, that is the word. The Times is getting better. Not much, but a little. It's getting more serious. That is what they say.'

Are they right? Unlike Stuart, I haven't met many of these people. I haven't heard the buzz. But it is time we considered the question. For there is no doubt that Robert Thomson, who has been editor of the Times for nearly eight months, wants to take it upmarket. He has even told a couple of friends of mine that Rupert Murdoch, the paper's proprietor, shares his dream. Perhaps in the twilight of his days Mr Murdoch hopes to be remembered not for all the dumbing down he has achieved, but for a little belated dumbing up. Mr Thomson has been allowed to open a couple of new foreign bureaux.

There are, of course, many upmarket aspects to the Times. There is Simon Jenkins and William Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove and Anatole Kaletsky and Matthew Parris and the rest of the gang. There are the leading articles and the letters. The foreign pages are not bad. The business pages are scarcely downmarket. But all this was the case under the editorship of Peter Stothard, who has now moved on to edit the TLS. (That is another story, which I am following carefully.) My old friend created a hybrid paper which played both sides of the wicket. The old Times readers were supposed to be kept happy by the more elevated features I have mentioned, while the new readers, who flocked to the paper after it slashed its price in 1993, were offered more downmarket fare.

If anyone doubts the transformation that has taken place over the past decade, let me produce some incontrovertible evidence. Down at the Bodleian Library I compared the Times's coverage in a week at the beginning of this year (before my old friend tossed in the towel) with a corresponding week a decade ago. Dear reader, you would not believe it. Ten years ago there was much more text on the news pages, and photographs occupied about half the space they do today. There were no celebrities, and I mean no celebrities. In the corresponding week in 2002 the following celebrities appeared with their photographs on the early news pages: Victoria Beckham, Julia Roberts, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Michael Jackson, Sinead Cusack, Delia Smith, Farrah Fawcett Major, Robbie Williams.... I could go on but I haven't got the space. Whereas in the week ten years ago there were few, if any, stories about animals, in the corresponding week in 2002 there was a picture of a jaguar being taken for a walk on a lead, a koala, a sheep, piglets, a springer spaniel, a warthog and Mike Tyson - all on the news pages.

Has much changed since Mr Thomson took over? Despite the buzz, I don't think so. The way in which the Times serialised the Edwina Currie diaries did nothing to restore its reputation as a respectable title. Picking up Tuesday's paper at random, I read this above the masthead: `Sex, lies and adoption - Jackie Collins, Page 20'. I look at Monday's paper and see in the same place two footballers and a sexpot in a gold dress. Probably Mr Thomson's home news pages carry slightly longer articles on more serious subjects than was the case during my old friend's editorship, but there are still lots of photographs of celebrities and women with few clothes on, as well as the occasional furry beast.

Without doubt the Daily Telegraph, the Independent and, to a lesser extent, the Guardian have all followed the Times downmarket over the past ten years. …

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