Bill Hagerty on the press

The whole truth and nothing but the truth, God help us
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There is an old German proverb which suggests that "truth has a handsome countenance but torn garments". This is as accurate as it ever was; and in Britain today, in the rough-and-tumble worlds of politics and the press, there are many who feel it's about time truth was taken by the hand and frogmarched to the nearest tailor.

Buried deep in a recent column in The Observer, Will Hutton observed that the public is the victim of postmodern journalism and postmodern politicians reacting to and creating their own subjective "truths". Hutton was referring to political spin and that given by papers to stories about asylum-seekers and the ills of the National Health Service, but for the press the argument holds good with the reporting of potential political dynamite, such as David Blunkett's private life.

With this story, most papers behaved with commendable and unaccustomed restraint - a smart move dictated, I suspect, by Blunkett's national popularity. But, predictably, there were papers that jettisoned objectivity, and therefore the truth, as soon as the story was catapulted beyond the confines of the Home Secretary's affair with the married Kimberly Quinn and the issue over their issue.

Whether the Home Secretary has been telling the truth may be determined by Sir Alan Budd in a report that could take politics further down the potholed road to Hutton's postmodernism. But whatever Sir Alan's conclusions, a Daily Mail editorial and, alongside, a diatribe by Simon Heffer strayed far from the evidence the paper had produced in castigating the Prime Minister for "abandoning any pretence of moral leadership". It was a preposterous jump from Home Office documents unearthed by the paper - another journalistic coup following The Sunday Telegraph's original revelations - to blaming Tony Blair for a "moral vacuum" in the Labour ranks, especially as lovelorn Blunkett's behaviour hardly registers on the Richter scale of spectacular moral deficiencies displayed in the past by politicians of all parties.

The Sun, gentle with the Home Secretary in its comment columns, let Richard Littlejohn off his leash; yet all in all the truth did not take the kind of battering critics of the press might have expected. Where the story has been rather more significant is in muting the calls for the introduction of some kind of privacy safeguards for potential victims of the red-tops' red mist and other journalistic excesses.

Without the exposure in the News of the World and The Sun of Blunkett's romantic entanglement, the possible misuse of ministerial influence and public money would almost certainly not have emerged. Anyway, as Martin Kettle observed in The Guardian, the way people conduct their private lives tells us things that can help in making judgements about them in their public roles. Even Kettle, usually a severe critic of what he believes to be increasing press irresponsibility, has recognised that decisions on whether or not to invade personal privacy have to be made by newspapers frequently and at speed. Mistakes sometimes happen.

This newspaper has great reservations about invasion of privacy and the reporting of what it considers tittle-tattle about the peccadilloes of public figures, and I respect this. Personally I believe that the public has the right to know almost everything - just as long as publication does not compromise national security or public safety, or endanger the well-being of innocent parties, such as children. But I do also believe that newspapers should report the truth to the best of their ability and resist implanting irresponsible points of view, usually dictated by political bias, in the minds of readers.

Another old saw tells us that the truth never hurt anybody. That's patently wrong, but no reason not to stick to it.

Poor circulation: it's a disease

An early Christmas present for the newspaper industry of the kind it will wish to return immediately to the store is a survey of UK titles conducted by Citigroup Global Markets. Among the gift-wrapped bad news this offers is the revelation that circulations have been in decline ever since 1984, with the exceptions only of 1987-88 and 1994-95, when News International slashed the cover prices of The Times and The Sun in an effort to incapacitate the rest of the market.

The policy did no more than briefly interrupt the wasting disease that has spread through the national press like a virus over the past 20 years. Bouts of discounting aside, the mass market has drifted steadily downwards. The mid-market has suffered less, mainly because of the readership growth of the Daily Mail, but the survey points out that the Mail is now 7.1 per cent adrift of its highest sales period. Its golden age, when it damaged the Daily Express close to the point of hospitalisation while challenging the quality end of the market, is over and Associated, having invested heavily in new presses, is concentrating on advertising rather than circulation growth.

Meanwhile, sales of the "qualities" have actually increased although, disturbingly, collective sales peaked seven years ago and have been slipping ever since.

The survey concludes that pressures from free newspapers, such as Metro, competition from the internet and the increased availability of multi-channel TV mean that overall circulations will continue to drop. So a happy new year's out, too.