Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Peter Oborne decides to pull the Telegraph temple down around his ears

Okay, it's hard to picture the Daily Telegraph's somewhat lordly former chief political commentator in the guise of Samson - but this afternoon he really let rip at his former employer (here). And I applaud him for it - it needed to be said loudly and publicly by someone who can't simply be brushed aside as a business rival or as a Tory-hating leftie. More importantly, Oborne's right. We've taken the Telegraph since we married in 1987, but, unless there are some truly spectacular editorial improvements over the next few months, we will be joining the ever-swelling ranks of ex-subscribers.

In 2011, I wrote an article on the occasion of Simon Heffer's sacking (here). In April 2012 I wrote that the Telegraph was in danger of turning into a decent paper once more (here). In an attempt to justify that assertion, I wrote:
Michael Deacon took over from Andrew Gimson as the  Parliamentary Sketch-Writer, they brought in Matthew Norman as their main comedy writer, their blog editor Damian Thompson took over Simon Heffer’s Saturday column, and main political commentator Peter Oborne, having spent an awfully long time finding his feet, finally relocated his mojo.
Since then, Matthew Norman has left (for the Independent), Damian Thompson was kicked out (he's now at The Spectator), and today we learn that Peter Oborne is an ex- employee.

Last December I wrote disapprovingly of the changes to the paper's blogs section (here), which had for several years been my first online port of call at the start of each day - I don't think I've bothered looking at it more than half a dozen times since I wrote that post. Last week, realising that I hadn't seen Oborne in the main paper for quite a while, I looked him up online in case he'd been fired and I'd missed the announcement. I got my answer today, when he unleashed a furious attack on what I recently described as "the raddled old bag" that is the once-mighty Torygraph. Much of his assault is taken up with a minutely detailed account of what he sees as the Telegraph's failure to adequately report the doings of HSBC, but I was more interested in his comments about falling journalistic standards (which no vaguely sentient reader can have failed to notice):
Circulation was falling fast when I joined the paper in September 2010, and I suspect this panicked the owners. Waves of sackings started, and the management made it plain that it believed the future of the British press to be digital. Murdoch MacLennan, the chief executive, invited me to lunch at the Goring Hotel near Buckingham Palace, where Telegraph executives like to do their business. I urged him not to take the newspaper itself for granted, pointing out that it still had a very healthy circulation of more than half a million. I added that our readers were loyal, that the paper was still very profitable and that the owners had no right to destroy it. 
The sackings continued. A little while later I met Mr MacLennan by chance in the queue of mourners outside Margaret Thatcher’s funeral and once again urged him not to take Telegraph readers for granted. He replied: “You don’t know what you are fucking talking about.” 
I rather think Oborne fucking does, actually. Here he is on the large number of gaffes that now regularly litter the paper:
Solecisms, unthinkable until very recently, are now commonplace. Recently readers were introduced to someone called the Duke of Wessex. Prince Edward is the Earl of Wessex. There was a front page story about deer-hunting. It was actually about deer-stalking, a completely different activity. Obviously the management don’t care about nice distinctions like this. But the readers do, and the Telegraph took great care to get these things right until very recently.
He blames the appointment of an American called Jason Seiken as "head of content" (apparently, the term "editor" is now considered too fuddy-duddy), and the subsequent introduction of what Oborne calls a "click culture":
Stories seemed no longer judged by their importance, accuracy or appeal to those who actually bought the paper. The more important measure appeared to be the number of online visits. On 22 September Telegraph online ran a story about a woman with three breasts. One despairing executive told me that it was known this was false even before the story was published. 
Symptomatic of this new, go-ahead, vibrant approach was (for me, at least) the number of front-page photographs of the actor George Clooney's new wife, who is, apparently, a human rights lawyer (but who, as far as I know, doesn't sport three breasts).  My wife and I are traditional Telegraph readers and, because we are subscribers, a decent source of profit - and I can assure the weird aliens who appear to have taken over this great British institution, that we have absolutely no interest whatsoever in the wives of film stars, no matter how long their legs might be. It's all so grotesquely vulgar. Obviously, this approach is designed to entice a younger demographic. Good luck with that - because your older demographic is about to bugger off. (God knows where to, though - the Mail of the Times, I suppose.)

Peter Oborne is by no means my favourite journalist. He can be extremely pompous, he's distinctly dhimmitudinal, and I've long tired of his trick of deliberately adopting contrarian positions just to make himself appear an original thinker (the silliest of these is undoubtedly his frequent assertion that Ed Miliband is an excellent leader of the Labour Party - oh, chuck it!) But he's evidently an honourable man (he wrote a splendid book ten years ago on The Rise of Political Lying) who respects the traditions of the Telegraph and understands its readers' interests and sensibilities - unlike the current management, he also knows who the hell its readers actually are. He's also a pretty good writer (I'm really looking forward to reading his Wounded Tiger: A History of Cricket in Pakistan when it comes out in paperback). I don't know who he'll end up writing for (he seems alarmingly keen on The Guardian, for God's sake!), but I wish him all the best.

As for The Telegraph, I suggest it stops sacking decent journalists, defenestrates the trendy blisters who appear intent on dragging it to hell in a handcart, and GIVES US BACK OUR PAPER!

12 comments:

  1. The sad demise of the Telegraph has been all too apparent for a couple of years. Ironically, Oborne has played his part in it, as you say. It's hard to imagine him thriving on the paper that once hosted the great Mark Steyn or Michael Wharton.

    There are so many problems with the old ship. They run from its editorial position (seeming to drift further to the Left every month) to its recent habit of lifting stories from the Mail, thus making itself look simultaneously behind the news and trashy at one and the same time.

    How a publication which is supposed to be desperate for clicks reconciles that with trying to charge for a declining product is baffling. And it really is desperate - that's why it runs those tiresome photo series of new cars or fashion plates - each image counts as another click.

    Clearly, who ever is responsible for these decisions is an idiot, but that's nothing new in publishing, is it? We can only hope the Brothers Grim sell the old girl before she sinks with all (few) remaining hands.

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    1. Unfortunately, I'm not sure there's a market for newspaper titles these days - unless the Mail or the Times bought it in order to kill it off, because they're going to be the only beneficiaries of its demise.

      Given that they're a commercial concern, and I'm a source of profit, why aren't they on the phone sucking up to me? Why are they so keen to get rid of me and my ilk? Oh well - I never did understand business.

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    2. The one thing I agree with Oborne about is that there definitely is a market for the Telegraph as a print newspaper. He correctly identifies the readership and that it is a large and devoted one. It may be ageing but what those who fret about that always seem to forget is that it is being constantly replaced by new readers as they grow-up.

      What is happening to the Telegraph is that a lot of massively overpaid 'executives' are running around as if their arses were on fire, hurling buzzwords at a problem as if they were magic bullets. They are terrified of the Internet and in trying to counter what they imagine it will do to their product, they are actually destroying it. It is, in fact, one of the few 'buggy whip factories' that could survive.

      There is, clearly, no future for the Guardian without huge subsidies. Its figures prove that. Similarly, the Times, which has had it. The Mail has correctly identified its market and will survive as both an online and legacy title. The Independent has been dying since it was launched as a bizarro Telegraph.

      As Oborne says, The Telegraph needs to hold its nerve, stop trying to chase airhead metrosexuals, who won't want it unless it becomes a completely different newspaper, and get back to catering for its core readership - the older, wealthier, educated, conservative heartland. If it does that, it will have a thumping readership which cannot be reached any other way and it will prosper.

      Clearly, its owners are too out of their depth to see this (they made their money from selling cheap food, didn't they?) and have been hoodwinked by the sort of self-appointed 'experts' who are ruining a lot of businesses these days.

      I don't give a hoot if they lose their money but I do hate to see a great institution like the Telegraph being destroyed by fools.

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    3. A number of excellent points here - especially the fact that, although the Telegraph's readership is well old, we oldsters are living longer and, as a group, have money, thanks to the sort of occupational pensions that no longer exist and the bribes governments keep flinging at us to get us to vote ourselves more money (after all, very few of us are actually living on dogfood and dyring of hypothermia in bedsits with water pouring down the walls, no matter what Labour would have us believe). There are a lot of us, lots of us have disposable income and we tend to be right of centre. As you imply, why not make hay while the sun shines (or until we fall of the perch) and keep the highly profitable print edition going for at least another decade by giving us what we want?

      I used to be a new media exec, so I know all about terrifying old media folk into doing one's bidding by being apocalyptic - flash up a few highly questionable graphics and they're all convinced they'll be out of a job next Tuesday. As you say, an excellent time to hold their nerve, one would have thought.

      I now realise I've pinched your "metrosexual" line for my latest post, without attribution. I apologise for this unforgivable act of plagarism.

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  2. I gave up on the Telegraph at about the time that even the insipid post-Wharton Peter Simple column became too radical for them. At the moment, the paper reminds me of the scene in "Doctor in Clover" in which Leslie Phillips is told by a young French woman that he is too old to party and decides to shave off his moustache, grow a fringe and get a pair of Chelsea boots. The odd thing is that its ridiculous attempt to cut everything worth reading out of the paper to save costs and get with it online, daddy-o, came at the same time as the Times lost any sense of a common thread or purpose and continued Skywards. This and the D.Tel's decision to try to out-click the Mail online has left a hole in the paper market for an intelligent and influential conservative newspaper, which it could have filled by going backwards, but for the stupidity of its management.
    That reminds me. There's a good subscription deal for the Spectator on at the moment.

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    1. I gave up The Spectator when Boris Johnson was editing it, but as several sensible people have recently recommended it, I may have to give it another go - properly, rather than just by downloading my 20 free articles a month like I do at the moment.

      Going head to head with the Mail online is evidently a suicidal strategy. A prominent member of the 21-year old community told me this morning that the Mail's girlie bits (fashion tips, celebrity gossip etc.) are regularly visited by practically all his fellow-students, no matter how goofily left-wing they are.

      Given that the Telegraph brand is now hopelessly tarnished, I suggest they relaunch it under the title "The Daily Grump". I'd buy that.

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    2. That was, of course, more or less the pitch for The Oldie, when Ingrams started it. I quite enjoyed it for a year or two but lost the thread after a while and haven't see it for years.

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  3. I would go for "The Daily Waugh". Other than the pun, it has the virtue of commemorating the great novelist who bemoaned the fact that although he had voted Conservative all his life, they had not put the clock back by a single second.

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    1. Whatever they're paying him, it isn't a tenth of what he's worth.

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  5. Your post and the expert comments about Oborne and the telegraph in general are very helpful.

    I suffer from a form of "Peladophobia" [a fear of males who completely shave their heads as a lifestyle choice. The great historian and former Spectator columnist, Paul Johnson, suffers from the same phobia]. I looked up this chap Jason Seiken [Private Eye always refer to him as "Psycho" for reasons best known to themselves] and it turns out he sports a shiny, glabrous head which set up a series of spastic shivers in my legs. Over at the Spectator the associate editor and general talent-free pain-in-the-ass Toby Young [ a revered figure of this parish, apparantly] also shaves his little head completely. Neither Seiken or Young seem to have any discernible facial features. [See also publicity-hound politicians Chuka Umunna and Said Javid who seem to be permanently smeared across our TV screens with the lights bouncing off their glistening domes. Revolting.]

    It is too difficult to cancel the BBC, but on the basis of your post I have stopped buying the DT and reinvested the money in a subscription to Viz Magazine. A friend urged me to consider Time Magazine and /or The New Yorker or Vanity Fair. But I do not know who most of the people in them are and poor Hitchens the Elder is no longer with us, requiescat in pace.

    I have just learnt that "Phagophobia" is a fear of swallowing or being eaten. Bit close to the bone, as they say in polite circles.

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  6. That's odd - I would have thought you'd experience an innate sense of superiority towards rather than a fear of any chrome-dome you might happen across, given that you are so tonsorially unchallenged yourself, despite your advanced years. Perhaps you subconsciously worry that they will have designs on your flowing locks? I am relaxed about men with shaved heads, and I'm rather fond of Toby Young, as you know. I've always felt sorry for him since I heard that his father, a Labour peer, sent him to a crappy state school for ideological reasons - but fate played a hand when young Toby was sent an acceptance letter by Brasenose in error. Despite the fact that he had only managed two Bs and a C at A level, the college decided to give him a place anyway. (I wonder what happened to the poor bugger who didn't get in because of the college's incompetence.)

    Anyway, chrome domes. The only time they give me the creeps is if they're also missing their eye-brows. A current affairs producer who once worked for me turns up on TV news occasionally as a reporter, and his startling baldness is in such contrast to his former hirsuteness that I can't concentrate on a word he's saying. I think black men carry off the full baldy look effortlessly - if Chuka Umunna unnerves you, it's probably because he is a sinister creep.

    American magazines tend to be rather left-wing these days. Viz seems a wise alternative to the Daily Telegraph, as I'm pretty sure Mary Riddell doesn't write for them.

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