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You do realise, of course, that reading this blog marks you out as — well, how do I put this without being too effusive? — a little more refined, a cut above the rabble and someone whose intellect and lively mind one can only admire. Elite? Yes, and then some

Over the years like many, many people the world over, I had bought ‘the Sunday papers’. Being — apparently — less intellectually and politically developed than my peers I suspect I regarded doing so as an aspect of being grown-up. It’s what ‘grown-ups’ around me did. Or perhaps I’m being too hard on myself. Anyway until I was in my mid-30s I spent several hours reading them like every other good middle-class chap.

Then one Sunday lunchtime sitting in a pub in Birmingham with my girlfriend, a pint of cider, The Sunday Times and The Observer the penny dropped. I suppose I might even call it ‘an epiphany’ if that didn’t sound too daft and if it had a more religious dimension to it, but it didn’t. It was quite straightforward in fact. I had just finished
reading some ‘important’ news story or other, written at length and taking up the best part of two broadsheet pages, when it occurred to me that I had not learnt a single new fact. Not one. Everything I had read I was already familiar with, and it dawned on me that all I had read was simply a rehashed round-up of the various stories and accounts of a particular matter that had been carried by the dailies throughout the previous week.

Well, if that occurred to me, why hadn’t it occurred to many others over the years? After all then — this was in the early 1980s when I was working for the Birmingham Evening Mail — the circulation figures for the Sundays were still very healthy, so the Sundays then had a great many more readers than they do now. Yet everyone was still at it and many, a great many, thought that their Sunday broadsheet pretty much had the inside track on everything. Actually, they were just, to a large extent, skilled re-write jobs.

Circulation figures these days are discouraging: according to the ABC figures for July 2019 (I got these from the Press Gazette, the Sunday Telegraph annual figure was 257,034 a week (down by 12% on the previous year), the Sunday Times was 649,908 (down 11%, but of that figure 51,445 were ‘bulks’, the trade term for simply giving the paper away free for various purposes) and The Observer a very piddly — in fact an embarrassingly bad — 157,4553 (down 7%).

By comparison, at the beginning of January 1980 when I joined the Evening Mail, its circulation was a healthy — if I have got this right — 240,000 or thereabouts, but, to its extreme annoyance, it had fallen some from the papers’ heyday and had recently been outshone by the Wolverhampton-based evening paper, the Express & Star. Regarded by the Evening Mail as something of an upstart, by January 1980, the Express & Star was selling about 20,000 copies more a night.

In the early-1980s there was no internet and so no ‘social media’, just four TV channels (and the newest, Channel 4 had only just been launched) and most households bought a Sunday paper. The tabloids sold better, but even the circulation figures for the three main broadsheets — the Independent wasn’t found until 1986 and its sister Independent on Sunday not for another few years and both went to the wall as printed papers three years ago — were good, though already declining from their heyday but still making a great deal of moolah for their owners. Apart from the broadsheets, there was The News of the World (‘the Screws’ as in The News of the Screws), The People, The Sunday Mirror, and in those days several regional Sunday papers. In Birmingham we had the Sunday Mercury, though I never read it.

. . .

The trick used by (here in Britain, but you will have your own ’Sundays’) the Sunday Telegraph, the ST and the ‘Obs’ was - and still is - a good one and, like all good tricks, a simple one: to write your news stories in a pseudo-authoritative manner which seems to wink at the reader ’WE know what’s REALLY going on, and as YOU are reading this, YOU do to’ (with the tacit message ‘so, well done, join us, The Intelligent Informed People’).

That’s outrageous flattery, of course, but it’s one of only true keys to success in this world. Flatter someone well and consistently — and so that they don’t notice — and you will have whatever is your wicked way before you can say ‘sucker!’ It beats brute force every time, and no one is immune to it — well, perhaps YOU are, my dear: but then you always did strike me as being just a little too sharp to fall for that kind of schtick and I doubt I could sucker you successfully, but as for everyone else . . . (yes, you know who, that’s it him/her).

Grateful to be acknowledged, however spuriously, as something of ‘an insider’, Sunday Telegraph, ST and ‘Obs’ readers (and, until it was put out of its misery, ’Indy’ readers) would then spend the early part of the following week when at work, in the gym changing room or down the pub, pontificating with equal pseudo-authority on a subject they barely understood and whose essential details were becoming harder to remember by the hour:

‘Well, that Dominic Cummings is a complete menace, of course/the only one of that sorry gang who seems to have any kind of grip . . . The Queen is furious, apparently, but she can’t say or do anything at all/serves her right, I’m sure she’s a secret remoaner . . . Come on, Boris might have pulled a fast one, but its genius, for God’s sake, and anyway, what’s the fuss about, Parliament is prorogued every year/he’s really gone too far and it’ll end he career with a bit of luck . . .

But never mind. By Thursday and Friday when their increasingly threadbare comprehension of ‘an issue’ courtesy of two hours spent ‘with the Sundays’ is so hazy most folk wisely keep schtumm on the matter, there is a new edition of the Sunday Telegraph, the ST and the ‘Obs’ to look forward to the following Sunday.

Try it yourselves: if you are one of the fast-diminishing gang who still spend a few hours every Sunday ‘with the Sundays’, ask yourself after reading a story — like the one I’ve linked to, but any of the others — the demos and protests in Hong Kong, the US/China trader war, Salvini shooting himself in the foot in Italy — what have you exactly learned from reading that latest story that you didn’t already know?

To be fair, Sunday papers have a tough time: unless ‘a story breaks early on the day before publication, it will be picked up by one of its daily rivals and no longer ‘news’ by the time they add their two ha’porth worth. That’s why, I suppose, they have to give it that ‘authoritative’ spin. They have somehow to give the impression ‘the story’ has moved on.

. . .

A vaguely related practice, one often adopted by the Guardian, it to cover what they call ‘a running story’, giving ‘live updates’ on an EU meeting, a huge train crash, or whatever ‘the story’ is. It is equally spurious (in my view). Take the ‘EU meeting’: its a hoary old cliche that we, the public, are not only entitled to learn what those who govern us are up to but should know. Fair enough, although that rather ignores the problem that most of us interpret events to suit our own bias.

Thus the recent ‘prorogation of Parliament’ is either a sneaky way of denying those opposed to a ‘no-deal’ Brexit as much parliamentary time as possible to get their ducks in a row to make sure a deal is struck; or it is — this is the official line — something that happens every year in September before the three weeks of party conferences (the period often referred to as the ‘conference recess’) and always happens before a Queen’s Speech is due.

That Parliament will be suspended (the common or garden word for ‘prorogued’) for longer than is normal is a coincident say its supporters: it is just how the ‘conference season’ and the usual prorogation of Parliament before a Queen’s Speech have panned out, and that it does rather stymy ‘no-deal’ opponents hoping to scupper the Prime Minister’s plans to sell Britain down the river (No commenting! Ed.) is neither here nor there.

For these past few minutes or so Radio 4’s the World This Weekend news programme has been playing. OK, often — another problem faced by hacks when there has been no new development in a story — news editors will think up some angle or other to give the story legs and this is certainly what happened on the World This Weekend. But they got some historian or other in, an expert on the English Civil War — note the English Civil War, not the Scottish, Welsh or British Civil War — to compare the situations.

It all kicked off, she said, when the the Parliamentarians found there seemed way forward in their negotiations with Charles II over his high-handed handling of Parliament. The point of comparison is, I suppose, not just the stalemate reached between the no ‘no-deal’ Brexit camp and the ‘we leave by October 31 come what may’ wallahs, but the stark and unreconcilable positions of the Remainers and Brexiteers: ne’re the twain will meet.

On the bright side, of course, is the fact that in Britain, unlike in the US where apparently every child over seven is by law obliged to own and know how to use at least two different kinds of gun, few households have a stock of weapons. When we are angry we prefer to right strong letters to someone rather than take a number of semi-automatic weapons to the nearest school and kill as many kids as possible. So if this matter does turn into a civil war (and, to be frank the last one was more than 360 years ago, so we might well be due one), at least most combatants will be armed with nothing more lethal than a few obscenities.

Should I be joking? Of course, I should. The whole matter, from the Brexit vote on three years ago, is a farce. Pip, pip.

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