On election day, a Left-wing Scottish author – of whom most of us had never heard, called John Niven – bought every copy of the Daily Mail and Sun in his local newsagent. He then burned ‘the entire stock of hate-wa**ing rags’, earning himself some spirited plaudits on Twitter. It was of course an utterly futile gesture because he only succeeded in destroying a tiny fraction of the print run of the newspapers he detests. But I would also suggest that Mr Niven and many others on the Left are stuck in a kind of time warp. They are guilty of grossly exaggerating the power of the so-called Tory press.
It’s true that all the Right-wing papers pulled out every familiar stop in denigrating Jeremy Corbyn. (As a writer for the Daily Mail, I cheerfully took part in hostilities.) The Daily Express, Sun, Daily Telegraph and Mail campaigned energetically against Labour, while the Times more circumspectly dipped a toe or two in the water. Even the wildly anti-Brexit Financial Times reluctantly backed Theresa May. Among national daily papers, only the Guardian and Daily Mirror rooted for Corbyn. For people on the Left, this is an enormous and unfair imbalance. I can see their point. But I would argue that it is an imbalance that didn’t make a lot of difference.
If you calculate the combined readership of all the Tory daily titles (excluding the Times and the FT), the total comes to 9.1 million. On the other side of the ledger, the Mirror and the Guardian (both much depleted from their heydays) muster a mere 2.6 million readers. These are large numbers, of course, but not so impressive if we consider that there are nearly 47 million adults in the United Kingdom who can vote in a general election. Most of them do not read newspapers and, more to the point, most of them do not read Tory-supporting newspapers. The Sun and the Mail can fulminate as much as they like but, however passionately they do so, their eruptions will not be noticed by the great majority of the population, though the political class and journalists may be transfixed.
Over the past quarter of a century, the Mail, Express and Sun have lost roughly half their combined readership, with the last two losing the largest proportions. Printed newspapers of every political hue are mostly disregarded by the young, who plumped for Labour in significantly larger numbers than usual, and boosted Corbyn’s vote. Many people under 35 have never picked up a paper in their lives. The political influences bearing down on them are to be found on social media, not the pages of the Sun or Daily Mail.
Ah, some will say, but what about online newspapers? Don’t young people read them in larger numbers? Yes, they do, but it seems to me very doubtful – though I can’t prove this – that the terrifically successful Mail Online, with its vast audience, exercises a fraction of the political clout of its somewhat diminished printed cousin. Columns and leading articles and polemical pieces are peripheral in the world of clickbait. The online reader not infrequently skitters from one website to another, and has no great appetite for serious political fare, though he or she may of course be affected by the way in which stories are reported and presented. I don’t say that online newspapers never change hearts and minds; only that this is not what they are in business to do.
Since the EU referendum last June, the Daily Mail has come in for a terrific amount of stick from Left-wing writers. I have read more hate-filled articles about the newspaper in the past year than in the previous ten. In the minds of its critics, the Mail is almost single-handedly responsible for the Brexit vote. This is nonsense (as I have written here before) because the paper’s readers only account for about seven per cent of the adult population, and most of them were in any case probably inclined to vote leave, whether or not they were told to do so by their newspaper. In other words, those who rail against the Mail, and equally the Sun, are overestimating their political sway.
Perhaps it suits these people to set up straw men at whom they can hurl missiles. Perhaps they know in their hearts that the Tory press which they so loathe is less powerful than it used to be. But I rather think that – being usually of a certain age, which is to say over about 45 – they are often living in another era. Like the newspaper-burning John Niven, they haven’t woken up to the revolution that has taken place. They are fighting the battles of yesteryear. I happen to believe that the ability of the Right-wing press to shape the political destiny of our nation was always rather overplayed. But, after the 2017 election, who can doubt that such power as it once had is quickly ebbing away?