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A newspaper teeters, and I discover my true identity

July 18, 2020

I’ve known for most of my life that something was missing. I just didn’t know what that something was. Until today. And finally I’ve realised that the missing piece had been that I don’t have an identity. I do now, apparently.

If you have the patience and curiosity, let me explain.

The other day, in a reply to Debby, who often comments on my posts and has a waspish talent for picking up on my errors and inconsistencies, I mentioned that I often felt that my place in the world was at the edge – the place where you’re on the cusp of falling off. She seems to feel the same way too, but possibly a bit further around the edge. After all, she lives in America, which is as much on a seething precipice as Britain, yet one with slightly different properties.

Being on the edge of the world means that it’s hard to travel to the centre. Centrifugal force works against you. This makes you a loner. Not the glamorous Man With No Name immortalised by Clint Eastwood. But a man with many names, none of which fits.

I’m not by nature a joiner. I’ve never belonged to a political party. I’ve never let myself be swept along by the emotions of a crowd, which is why I avoid football matches, political rallies and birthday parties. Even when I’ve joined something, it’s never been with great enthusiasm, and always despite the Groucho principle of never belonging to a club which will have me as a member. And anyway, I’ve preferred to run things rather than go with the flow. Not always competently, but I’ve got by.

I also have a pretty strong aversion to being manipulated, provided I know it’s happening and I don’t consent to it. I can’t be hypnotised, as I realised years ago when I went to a hypnotist in an effort to give up smoking.

Don’t misunderstand this introspective gush as meaning I’m a tortured and lonely soul. I’m quite happy with my life, thank you very much. Yes, I would have liked to have achieved what Beethoven, Maradona and Spike Milligan did, but given the price they paid for their genius, I prefer comfortable mediocrity.

In my world, St Paul doesn’t have a vision on the road to Damascus. He stops for a MacDonalds in a truck stop a few miles from where the vision is waiting for him, and thereby misses it altogether.

So what of this missing identity, this key that enables me to enter the Garden of Belonging, where I can merge into a common understanding with like-minded blades of grass?

Up to now, I’ve felt that white, middle class, heterosexual, English, cricket-loving, not introvert, not extrovert has been enough to be going along with. But as of this morning I realise that’s not enough.

My vision occurred during my first coffee of the day, when I came across a tweet by Marina Hyde, a Guardian journalist. In it, she poured scorn on some anonymous person who said that they would not read the Guardian newspaper as long as certain named journalists continue to contribute to the paper. A little flavour of her invective:

Anonymous men on the internet who reckon they get to say ANYTHING are the worst. Let’s see you with some skin in the game, you silly little prick.
When you have the baby balls to even “unmask” yourself, I’ll be waiting. Until then you can carry on making cowardly points for people who don’t expect better. Honestly, buck up.

Unlike me, she must have woken up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. By way of context, the Guardian is in deep financial trouble, and is having to make cuts left, right and centre. Which is part of the point, because the offending tweeter clearly believes that the Guardian is only worthy of their attention if it is an organ of the left. Diversity of opinion is not, in their world, acceptable.

There followed the usual thread of childish comments, including one that suggests that the said Ms Hyde is not qualified to comment because she comes from a posh family. I was surprised at this condemnation on grounds of ancestry, because she’s the author of some of the most coruscating critiques of the current government that I’ve encountered since Boris came to power. And Jeremy Corbyn, whom many of the people in the thread appear to support, is not exactly a horny-handed son of the soil either.

But one comment turned on the light for me. Someone accused someone else of being a “centrist Tory enabler”. I then realised that this was the label I’ve been searching for all my life. Not a Tory, but someone who by taking no position at all – in other words standing in the middle of the extremes – is allowing people like Boris Johnson and all his predecessors to get away with ruining the country. By the same token, I would presumably also be a centrist Labour enabler if that lot were in power.

In other words, while others made mayhem, I, far from teetering on the edge of the world, have stood passively at the centre, providing the inert ballast that holds together the status quo.

This, then, is the narrative of modern politics, at least among the anonymous twitter mob. You’re either with us or against us. You can’t cherry-pick by liking a bit here and disliking something there. And if you refuse to buy the whole package you’re enabling the other side.

So, it seems, it’s becoming with newspapers, which perhaps accounts for their slow death. In my real place on the edge of the world, I do pick and choose. I don’t expect to agree with every Guardian columnist. There are some writers in the Times (I subscribe both to the London and New York titles) whom I avoid like the plague, yet others whose work I admire very much. I’m not averse to reading in the Daily Mail about aliens, football and prostate cancer. If something in the Telegraph looks interesting, I’ll gladly read it, provided it’s not about taking back control. I even devoured the whole of a Chinese Communist Party newspaper while idling in a hotel in Phnom Penh.

The point is that if national newspapers want to hang on to their circulations, they will need to avoid becoming the in-house publications for transitory political movements with predictable opinions and predictable writers. The Guardian will not become the Morning Star, and the Mail will not become Der Sturmer, because if they do, they won’t survive. They may dress to the left or the right, as the tailor would say, but they must remain broad churches, even if that means upsetting some of their readers.

Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Fox News, figured that out when he realised that his station was becoming Donald Trump’s in-house propaganda machine, and spiced up the content with stuff that pissed the president off. Otherwise, when Trump goes down, so does Fox.

Yet therein lies a problem for publishers. The New York Times upset much of its Democrat-leaning readership recently when it published an op-ed by Tom Cotton, a Republican senator. It fired the editor who allowed the piece to be published. One of its senior editors, Bari Weiss, resigned the other day, saying that she felt she was being bullied because of her eclectic (as a centrist Republican enabler, you might say) political views. And when the Guardian dares to criticise Jeremy Corbyn it’s instantly cast into the dustbin by his followers.

As private companies that need at least to break even, newspaper publishers have to perform a delicate balancing act between pleasing readers who think they own the paper by virtue of their subscriptions and therefore deserve a voice in its editorial decisions, and lumpen centrist Tory, Labour, (or, in the US, Republican or Democrat) enablers like me who seek only to be informed, provoked, challenged and entertained by their newspapers of choice. If they lose either group, they will die.

More likely, they will cease to print and go online. They will become multi-media organisations. The London Times now has a radio station that uses many of its writers. Most of the print media now use podcasts. They will go behind paywalls, which will prevent someone on the tube from picking up a discarded newspaper and reading it. The Guardian’s valiant attempt to go online without a paywall, using voluntary donations – the online equivalent of an honesty box – is clearly not producing the required financial rewards. Before long, the only way you will come across a piece of content by chance is if someone emails it to you, or if you see a link on the social media.

But when every “mainstream media” publication is only available online, what will distinguish them in the perception of their target market from their rivals who have only ever been online? Will “quality newspapers”, with hundreds of reporters, editors and researchers, survive if they’re no longer available to readers who don’t wish to have to squint at their phones of tablets and, if they do, lose patience after 600 words? And do online readers really care whether what they’re reading is the work of one man and his dog, or an august, multi-faceted news machine like the New York Times?

Perhaps they’ll do OK. They will no doubt diversify further. I’m waiting for the first one to start a TV station. And since they have the means to target centrist enablers like me through their command of big data, those with the means and desire to subscribe will continue to do so, while others will lose the habit of reading newspapers altogether. I don’t know enough about the financial implications of online versus print, though in the papers to which I subscribe I don’t see many ads, whereas in those I visit occasionally they’re everywhere. For me they spoil the reading experience. For Huffington Post, The Independent and The New European they’re what keeps them in business.

But if we’re really heading towards a place where there’s no centre, only different edges of the world, perhaps that demographic doughnut will have no place for media publishers who reflect a wide diversity of opinion. They’ll either stop covering politics altogether and leave the field to niche publishers with small but devoted followings, or they’ll fragment into lots of little niches themselves – sport, fashion, business and so forth.

And I will miss them. I will miss being able to go to one place to read about political plots, vaccines, Byzantine churches, book reviews, holidays in Italy, Ben Stokes and Once Upon a Time in Iraq. As a passive centrist enabler I will lament that I did little to stop the drift to extremes beyond casting my vote for an insipid in-betweener every five years or so.

It might take a while for the scenarios I’ve described to come to pass. Perhaps long enough to see me out. And after that? Not my concern really. Though I shall be watching from a place where passive centrist enablers gather to talk about the cricket.

  1. Marina Hyde is one of the best parts of the Guardian. When anyone — left, right or nothing to do with politics at all — does or says something stupid she gives them both rhetorical barrels. She’s both fun to read and often gets right to the heart of the stupidity.

    I found the tweet in question and, in context, it actually strikes me as quite reasonable. If someone is anonymously calling for other people to be sacked just for disagreeing with him, he really doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

    The plight of newspapers is certainly a problem, though. Not only for the reasons of getting a more balanced perspective that you’ve already mentioned but also because we need journalists.

    If a democracy is going to function then we need people to highlight what politicians — and others in power — are doing. To do this properly takes time and costs money. If the press are unable to do this, who will?

    • Thanks Paul. I agree with all your points, and I’m a big fan of Marina Hyde too.

  2. Andrew Robinson permalink

    Hi Steve.

    Here’s my Sunday morning knee-jerk tenpenneth….ah, it’s the afternoon…

    Your column is the only one I read religiously, often seven offerings on a Sunday despite being a non-believer (except at KSA immigration), so that’s something.

    Have you considered that you and your inky-fingered ilk may be the press Luddites of the 21st century? Maintaining expensive printing presses (which may be subcontracted now for all I know) and paper supplies, is reducing the budget for full-time journalists, about 10% of whom are worth their salary anyway in my self-inflated opinion.

    Arab News and Saudi Gazette gave us all we needed by skimming AFP and Reuters, without the need for any “opinion” other than your Friday favourites. Local journalists can’t spell or their sub-editors can’t – Liverpool Echo please take note.

    An opinion piece in an paper’s online version, with highlighted links to the evidential documents quoted, beats origami-folding, learned by watching the grey man opposite who’s been doing it for 40 years, on the 7.40 to Waterloo hands down, imo.

    When else could we enjoy BBC News, The Grauniad, NYT, Le Monde, Euronews (FR), Deutsche Welle (D) and the odd “in a parallel universe” highlight from the Irish Times, preferably Fintan O’Toole, at the tap of a (my) screen?

    The last newspaper I had a subscription to was “Le Canard Enchainé” weekly, the annual subscription being a gift from an advanced student, who got a year’s worth of “Private Eye” in return. Neither of us had the time to read them all…..and the frustration at the PURE WASTE was a later topic of discussion between us. The resulting paper mountain wouldn’t even go in our pellet burner in the winter.

    Before my hebdominal (“petite cirrhose oblige”) James Bond Martini at an almost-Spanish 2pm, I can only level one further complaint….you must get rid of your Dutch proofreader, although “f” and “r” are very close on the keyboard.

    Against all the trends mine will be shaken not stirred….. feel free to “expect me to die”.

    A votre santé et portez-vous tous bien !


    • Thank you as always for your eminently sensible thoughts, Andrew. Yes, I do grieve for the trees, though no outfit would use liberation from paper to pay journalists more, I think. And yes, I love the fact that I can cherry pick via the web, though I sometimes feel guilty for getting something for nothing. You’re right about the Saudi organs. Op-eds in the 80’s were either hilarious or malignant, sometimes both at the same time. The letters were even better. In the 00’s much the same, though better before MbS brought the curtain down. Ah well, a pot roast awaits, but first, thanks to your keen eye, I must go typo hunting!

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