As they preach on divorce, their readers may be falling off the straight and narrow

Real life gets in the way when newspapers try to hold the line on marriage

If there is data about the divorce habits of readers of particular newspapers, I am unaware of it. It would be fascinating to know, for example, whether the propensity for divorce is greater among Telegraph than among Independent readers. Do the obsessive upholders of traditional values for whom the Daily Mail caters veer less from the straight and narrow than Sun readers trying to absorb page three and watch Big Brother at the same time?

This was the week in which, as the Daily Express described it, "Women win the divorce jackpot. Husbands will be taken to the cleaners. Now women rule". The Law Lords' judgments giving Melissa Miller a divorce settlement of £5m and Julia McFarlane £250,000 a year for life were widely regarded as the most significant for decades, recognising as they did that divorcing women should be compensated for giving up (sacrificing, as The Daily Telegraph surprisingly put it) careers after marriage.

Newspapers are seldom reticent about marriage and divorce, both staples of the celebrity coverage that so dominates the pages today. But they are less confident when handling "real" marriage and divorce. Some, like The Sun, dealt with the Lords ruling by considering the implications for Sir Paul McCartney.

Even the serious newspapers are less happy with shades of grey than with certainties, and found that taking a position on the Lords ruling was not a matter of voting on party lines. Left of centre: liberal on divorce, compensate the wife. Right of centre: defend marriage, make divorce harder, men have suffered enough. It was harder for the more liberal papers.

The Daily Mail could portray itself as the last defender of the institution of marriage. "Yet again society moves to weaken marriage," said its leader, going on to assert that the pendulum had swung too far and men were now the ones who were being short-changed.

But The Independent, preferring casinos to divorce on the front page, saw the issue as less clear-cut. No problem about behaviour within marriage: the paper welcomed the rejection of the idea that the settlement for Mrs Miller was in any way punishment for her husband's affair, which precipitated the end of the marriage. "That is quite right," said the Indy.

However, there were echoes of the Mail's pendulum in the leader. Feminism had altered the 1950s model of the stay-at-home mother. But independence and fulfilment were prizes, not prices to be paid. "Does she [Mrs McFarlane] not have some responsibility for her own life? Not to suggest that... is to create a structural incentive to idleness and dependency - and to fuel the ire of those who talk about meal tickets for life."

The Times, as likely as any to have mega- settlement divorcees among the readership, found it "somewhat depressing" that more couples would now need to consider prenuptial agreements. What about the middle man- ager, of modest means, abandoned by a spouse who claimed and won huge compensation from future earnings?

Such people "may rightly feel wronged... the law should protect them from greed and vindictiveness".

Life is simpler in the shires and suburbs, where The Daily Telegraph flourishes. The paper, unequivocally for marriage, gave most space to the Lords rulings. Rachel Simon, single, hoped they would make people take marriage and divorce, and its consequences, more seriously. Her column bordered one by Boris Johnson. Let that be a warning to him.

The Daily Telegraph grieved over Britain having the second-highest divorce rate in Europe. It wanted that to change, which would require people to see divorce as the exception, rather than the natural option whenever a marriage hit difficulties.

"The introduction of 'no fault' divorce," said the paper, "has given precious little incentive to save a marriage that has hit a rough patch... The system is designed to facilitate, rather than hinder, the end of a marriage."

Now, The Daily Telegraph may believe that its readers are not susceptible to divorce or the causes of divorce. There may be no scandal, no risk of high compensation settlements out there. Somehow I doubt it.

Those Telegraph readers who write to the paper take a robustly pragmatic view. John Gouriet of Bicknoller in Somerset, married for 43 years, wrote: "Marriage is the cement of civilisation ... and should be a sharing partnership till death us do part, not until temptation beckons." Mr Gouriet feared the Lords ruling would not reduce the number of divorces, except by deterring men from marrying at all. "The military adage 'time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted' may prove sound," he said.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield