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Off The Page

David Hepworth on magazines and beyond

By David Hepworth

Off The Page

Anger management

The three strongest newspaper brands in the UK are the Daily Mail, The Sun and The Guardian. Twenty years ago, you might have added the Daily Telegraph to that list but now it seems to have no more of a future than The Organist Entertains.

The reason those three are still the strongest brands is not because of anything they do. They’re the strongest brands because they each have the firmest grip on what matters most in the UK; the prejudices of their readers.

None of the three groups of readers know exactly who’s to blame for society’s present malaise – but the only thing they can say for certain, it’s not them. Their certainty about their own particular set of prejudices is what shapes their DNA and also guarantees that, in a political climate where people vote against things rather than for them, they maintain their power, even when the traditional seat of that power, the newsstand, dwindles into insignificance.

One of the many fascinating insights in All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sunk Britain’s Political Class, Tim Shipman’s book about the world’s slowest car crash, is the power it ascribes to the press. Both sides seem to agree on one thing: it was the Sun and the Mail wot won it.

One of the key problems for the Remain campaign was that Cameron’s communications man Craig Oliver was a TV man who was obsessed with “the six and the ten” rather than what the newspapers were saying. What’s amazing is that within the period that the Brexit battle was being waged, millions of people were turning their backs on news as it had formerly been consumed, on TV and in print, and yet it was the press, rising like some kind of phantom limb, that continued to drive the debate. How did it do that?

Paul Dacre, one of the key victors in that campaign, has no sooner moved upstairs than he’s making nervous noises about which direction the Mail’s new editor Geordie Greig might take his old baby in. It’s a particularly interesting change of the guard because, unlike Dacre, who was inexplicably angry about just about everything, Greig doesn’t immediately give the appearance of being a man who is against things. However, in order to secure his position, he has to find something to be against very quickly because he’s following in the footsteps of a man who could hate for Britain. And did.

In opposition mode

Meanwhile, in a galaxy far away from the popular press of this country, there’s The Fourth Estate, a four-part documentary about the New York Times in the age of Trump, which is interesting in another way.

At the time the White House drama The West Wing, which starred a president who was liberal and immensely sophisticated, was a huge success, the actual president was George W Bush, who wasn’t particularly either of those things. Cynics described it at the time as a form of liberal porn, designed to sublimate the audience’s frustration about what was happening in the real world by depicting a world behaving in a way they would very much have preferred.

In The Fourth Estate, the staff of the New York Times can’t help but present themselves as the de facto opposition. If this was drama, they would be constantly scurrying down corridors pinging bon mots off each other. The senior journalists would be played by actors who are better looking than real reporters (who spend their lives sitting on their backsides snacking when all actors are at the gym) and we would be invited to envy them and wish to emulate the smartness of their repartee and the way they carried themselves.

On The Fourth Estate, however, they’re stuck with real people doing real things, of stories being assigned and re-assigned and then distributed among a bewildering array of writers, subs and social media experts to make sure that they’re up to speed with whatever the story is and are delivering it in whatever media it’s expected in. The money shot is of the news editor hitting the ‘publish’ button on some story and then watching the TV networks respond within seconds with “the New York Times has just reported…”.

This is an increasing pressure. As the executive editor points out, when he was a kid, the New York Times wasn’t expected to have a view on a subject until the following day. Now it’s expected to have one within minutes.

The key figure here is Maggie Haberman. She’s a middle-aged woman who just looks too normal to play the lead in a TV drama. Plus, she’s an outlier in the Ivy League world of the New York Times. She found herself the newspaper’s key Trump expert because she used to cover him back in the days when she worked on New York tabloids and she has the matter of fact view of the world that comes from that kind of background. Trump, she says, despises the New York smarterati because he desperately wishes to be accepted by them. And what’s the house organ of the smarterati? The New York Times. In a most un-starry way, Maggie’s a star.

All about me!

If it’s possible to enjoy some success with magazines fronted by personalities who are essentially inventions of TV, people like Oprah and Jamie Oliver, then how much more likely would it be if they were fronted by people who were primarily known because they have interesting opinions and are able to express those opinions without need of a scriptwriter?

I’m talking about the new breed of author / journalist who are seen to stand for something that a large audience identifies with and whose metier is live performance and social media. Here I’m talking about people like Caitlin Moran, Jon Ronson, Rod Liddle and Owen Jones, the kind of people with large followings on social media, the kind of people whose opinions really resonate with a lot of people. I can’t believe that at least some of these figures wouldn’t be interested in, or even flattered by, the notion of a magazine they fronted, a magazine that was named for them, which they could invite their mates to contribute to, that might help them sell their books, public appearances and spin-off projects and, though they wouldn’t use these words, “boost their brand”.

Instead of wasting time with special issues that are allegedly “guest edited” by some celebrity who has nothing to say and just turns up once at the office to have their picture taken at an editorial meeting, somebody should bite the bullet and accept the fact that in this day and age, some people are bigger brands than brands.

It’s a woman-thing

I’ve been going to the PPA Awards since the early 80s. Some things change – there are always more categories – while other things remain the same. Dress codes fascinate me. I’ve nothing against them. Like most codes, they’re oddly liberating. I asked the woman who was sitting on my right, how come it was that every year there were a handful of people in the room who had not bothered with evening dress, either because they were too late or they’re clearly just simply too fabulous to go along with anybody’s dress code, and that handful is always all-male.

I have seen women enter the Great Room at the Grosvenor House wearing outfits that may not have been the most flattering, outfits that might have a bit too much going on in one region and not enough going on in another, outfits that they may have tearfully posted in a dustbin the day following the awards; all these things I have seen, but I have never yet seen an example of a woman who hasn’t set out to look at the top of her game. Many things may have changed in the status and behaviour of women in the thirty years I’ve been going to the PPA but I’ve still never seen a woman who has descended that staircase in whatever she happened to be wearing at the office that day, simply thinking, “I haven’t got time for this frivolity – they must take me as they find me”.

How come, I asked my table mate, that out of all the thousands of PPA-ready women I have seen over the years, I haven’t seen a solitary single one who didn’t try?

She looked at me as though I had questioned one of the natural laws, rolled her eyes and said, “well, that’s never going to happen, is it?”