Magazine article The Spectator

Capt. Gove Positions Himself as Gen. Stothard Is Allowed One Last Push against the Telegraph

Magazine article The Spectator

Capt. Gove Positions Himself as Gen. Stothard Is Allowed One Last Push against the Telegraph

Article excerpt

There is a game one can play on the second Saturday of every month. Buy a copy of the Times and the Daily Telegraph. On the front page of each paper you will find an account of how it fared the previous month. The Times will say it did miles better than the Telegraph, and the Telegraph will say it has knocked the Times into a cocked hat. It is always so. Last Saturday the Times told us its sales were up again, while the Telegraph boasted of its `big lead over the Times'. Which paper was telling the truth? The answer is both and neither. It is a question of selection. By choosing statistics that suit its case, each paper can represent itself as having done better than the other. No lies are told but the wider truth is ignored.

Perhaps I may be allowed to attempt a more dispassionate account of the papers' fortunes. The Times did put on sales last month - some 3.21 per cent as against the Telegraph's very humble increase of 0.03 per cent. On the other hand, this is almost entirely irrelevant. In newspaper circulation it is the big movements that count, the shifts that take place over many months and years rather than the temporary blips. Last month the Times sold a daily average of 746,317 copies and the Telegraph 1,040,140. In January 1998 the figures were respectively 842,341 and 1,082,415. In January 1997, 766,922 and 1,142,094. In January 1996, 687,992 and 1,053,146.

Swings and roundabouts, I would say. Over three years the fortunes of each paper have ebbed and flowed a little, but the Telegraph is roughly where it was three years ago, while the Times has put on a little circulation. Any examination of their sales over the last three years points to this conclusion - that the Times, after an incredible period between 1993 and 1996 during which it roughly doubled its circulation after slashing its cover price, has been more or less treading water, while the Telegraph is more or less keeping its end up. The people at the Times console themselves with the thought that some 276,135 of the Telegraph's daily sales are via subscription, which means they are sold at less than the full cover price. But while this has an effect on the wallet of Mr Conrad Black, the paper's proprietor, it is somehow beside the point. Readers and advertisers don't regard subscription sales as any less authentic than news-stand ones.

The truth is that the Times has run out of steam after a brilliant campaign. It shows no sign of fulfilling the dream of its proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, of overtaking the Daily Telegraph. He is said to be thinking of giving my old friend Peter Stothard, the paper's editor, the wherewithal for one last push. But, unless they virtually give the paper away, it is difficult to see where General Stothard's final assault might lead. Mr Murdoch is reluctant to accept the thesis that it may be impossible to overtake the Telegraph. But the wise thing would be to consolidate - to put up the price of the loss-making paper to an economic level, and to improve it.

Few people believe that is what Murdoch will do. It follows there is some speculation as to what might happen to General Stothard if his one last push does not succeed, as I don't believe it can. He has, after all, been en poste for seven years, and Murdoch editors rarely last more than ten. …

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